After coming down from my ten performances of ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ I launched into looking into ways of staging it in south Wales. This has proved frustrating and glacially slow. I could grow carrots, cabbages and onions, breed and milk my own cows, make and market my own cole slaw, it would be easier and quicker than getting someone, anyone, in the Welsh arts world to give me even the tiniest leg up. I don’t blame individuals, it’s not a great time for the arts anywhere. Austerity, and all that. Brexit, blah blah blah. People have other things on their mind. Frustrated, and trying to keep the Robinson plate spinning, I came up with the thought that I could use the style of that show to create a series of podcasts. The last few years have been very depressing – the UK seems to have become a nation of boring, ultra-conservative, vitriolic, xenophobic philistines in gullible awe of privileged self-serving bullshitters like Rees-Mogg and Johnson. I needed to turn away from it, face a different direction, it was destroying my soul. I wanted to look at this country and find something I love. So I’ve started on a series of podcasts ‘These Weird Isles’ – a journey around less well known parts of the UK, layering memory, landscape, and the work of others who have passed the same way. There’s Batman and Gwen John in Haverfordwest, Peter Cushing in Whitstable, there are curlews and plenty of cheese. Search ‘These Weird Isles’ on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Soundcloud. Or, if you can’t find them there, they’re here.
Category Archives: Wales
I performed ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ for ten dates over two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe. I described it as ‘dirty, noise opera’. A messy mix of sound, prose, music and nonsense. A solo show I wrote, produced and performed on my own, as stupidly arrogant as this may have been. I write this now it’s over, knowing now how blissfully unaware I was of how difficult it would be. The orgnaisation alone, from booking the right venue, to ensuring I had enough twenty pence pieces in a jam jar for the parking meter, was enough to have me crawling around on all fours slobbering. But these were things I knew about. What I could not have forseen were things like the entrance to the venue car park being blocked by a laundry van and there being nowhee else to park. I could not imagine how something I had run through over and over again – setting up my equipment, making sure all cables and connections worked, tuning instruments, sound checking, would be so much more difficult when the previous performer overran. With seconds to go before my audience was shown in, I would still be making final adjustments, unsure everything was working, the venue humid, my head, face, body, sweltering, pouring with sweat. And this was before any performance began. A performance is the tip of an iceberg, in this case an iceberg that is melting at a furious rate. What the audience don’t see is the huge amount of preparation, the years of writing, composition, organisation, and particularly, last minute, frenzied, furious mayhem.
Ten shows on I am pleased how well I did, how few mistakes I made, how little went wrong. It was not a great show, but I carried it off. I survived. I got some great reviews from audiences, from complete strangers who had just wandered in out of curiosity:
‘Passionate, magical, beautiful, intimate and quite astounding. I’m very glad I didn’t miss this gem of theatrical, musical, crazy genius. A wonder indeed.’
‘A beautiful and gently captivating one-man show. It uses layers of live sound and storytelling to tell of the life and inspiration of the author Machen.’
‘A beautifully realised and moving account of the life, creative processes and philosophy of the great Welsh mystic and writer. A must see (and hear) for those interested in the pastoral origins of Britain’s weird tales.’
And then there was one negative, almost hostile, response from a professional reviewer, who I shall not name, who suggested audiences would have felt ‘short changed’ when my show ended ten minutes earlier than I had assumed (shows were of varying length because so much was improvised). No audience member complained that my show was too short, although one gentleman walked out because it was too loud. I received no negative audience feedback at all. Yet this reviewer (who didn’t pay for his ticket) managed to taint my (maybe unwarranted) pride at having pulled off what was a gargantuan task. Just finding somewhere to park, to load my gear, climbing up and down two flights of stairs three times a day, to load the car, then getting to the venue unsure of whether I could get my stuff out of the car and inside on time, every day, was self-inflicted torture, and enormously demanding even without having to give everything to the show. But it is done. Maybe I’ll perform it again in a few months. We’ll see. I’m a wreck.
Back in the 1990s I had a small midi studio set up in my flat in Ealing. I’d just bought a new keyboard, and was experimenting with using an Alessis sequencer which allowed me to record layers of music, something that today anyone with an iPad can do easily, but which then was something altogether new. I’d had a series of tape recorders, but these, like the Teac 4 track, were huge machines that needed careful handling. This new set up was like a sketchpad: I could leave it running all day and wander in, listen, add a track, edit something, go back out.
I’d always thought I would start a big project at some point, and had an idea of creating something based on the work of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, whose fictions were set in that part of London I now lived. But despite having the idea, I could not find a way to start. Whatever I tried seemed cliched or laboured. But then one afternoon a couple of friends came over. We had a few drinks, I showed them my set up. Neither of them were musicians, but they were captivated by the sounds that keyboard, sequencer and sound modules could make. So I let them play about for a few giddy minutes. I saved what they did – a scrambled series of semi-tones. I forgot about it.
But a few days later, resuming my search for a way to begin my magnum Machen opus I retrieved their sonic doodles and listened. I cleaned it up, added a few bass notes and realised this was the beginning of something. I developed it over the next few weeks and then, perhaps because of warmer weather or work or boredom, I put it to one side.
Three or four years later I moved to south Wales, bought an Atari computer and Cubase software, a sampler, some new sound generators, and once more woke the Machen project out of its hibernation. I worked on it for a year or so, and once more, shelved it.
This pattern repeated itself over two decades. I’d buy a new set up, develop the piece, forget about it. This went on until last year when I decided to buy some studio time, and finish the thing. ‘From Ages to Ages’, a sort of three act ‘musical lecture’ (it’s hardly an opera) was eventually finished in May 2016, twenty five years after it was born in the flat in Ealing.
I lost touch with the two friends whose delightfully naive playing gave me the eerie theme I use in the opening sections, but their curious little melody weaves its way through the hour of music that is ‘From Ages to Ages’. I’m very proud of it, but have put it away now and more or less forgotten about it. It’s time to start something new.
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.
I found myself looking at antiques. In an antique shop. The owner, hidden behind a wall of stacked furniture, was observing me in a large mirror. At first I mistook his reflection for him, and nodded a greeting. When I realised I was addressing a reflection, I peered around the barricade and smirked. He responded with minimal interest. I was a prospective customer, but he could barely acknowledge me. I was interested in the Windsor chair, but it was too late, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment now, and walked directly out. This was Abergavenny, a place I tend to look down upon.
I look down upon Abergavenny from the three mountains that surround it. The Sugar Loaf, The Skirrid and The Blorenge. The last of these has an ascent so steep it is almost vertical. You climb on all fours, but standing up. The summit of the Blorenge can also be reached by road, which dilutes the achievement a little, but up there, with lungs screaming for air, this is what you get.
The Skirrid can be seen at the foot of the rainbow, and at the foot of the Skirrid, is The Walnut Tree Inn. I love The Walnut Tree.
I fell over on the Skirrid, a long time ago. I thought I had broken a rib. On presenting myself at A&E at the Royal Gwent Newport, and complaining of chest pains, I was immediately rushed into a cubicle and sensors placed on my chest.
Only the night before I had been drinking in the Church House, a pub at the Handpost, just outside Newport. The Slowboat Takeaway is just up the road, and above that is a small flat where Green Gartside used to live. I used to see Green wandering the pavements. He was quite famous then, and I never understood why he had chosen to live back in Newport. I don’t think he ever wrote a song about Newport, or the Slowboat.
I was drinking alone in the Church House, a pub near the Handpost, just outside Newport, when a bloke slumped down next to me and asked if I could buy him a drink. He was in a bit of a mess, pissed, but seemed good company. I bought him a pint, and he began telling me how hard his life was, how he couldn’t hang on much longer. He told me he was doctor at the Royal Gwent, and although I had no reason to doubt him, I did. He looked bedraggled, and after all, he did ask me to buy him a pint.
I’m covered in sensors, wondering why no one will just take my word for it, that this isn’t a heart attack, I’ve just done something to my rib, but the ECG is blipping away and the doctor rushes in, unshaven, squitty eyed, and it’s him, the guy I was drinking with night before. He didn’t recognise me, of course. I was going to tell him about our encounter, but decided not to.
The rib took months to heal, and I can’t think of the Skirrid without thinking of that fall. The day of my fall I’d climbed the hill with my parents, neither could manage it now, they are both approaching ninety, and live just around the corner from the Church House. I was there just last week. My mother is very unwell, and my dad cares for her full time. He’s usually very perky, and full of rambling, digressive stories. But last time I saw him he looked weak and frail and was sorry for himself. It was his 87th birthday.
“I’ve lived long enough,” he said. I gave him a hug when I left. It was hard.
But today I’m in Abergavenny, making my way to the car park after walking out of the antique shop. I get in the car, drive home. On the radio Iain Sinclair is talking about WG Sebald. I love both writers. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of my favourite books. I prefer it to The Rings of Saturn, which many people consider his masterpiece. Sebald was a walker, and his books are often ramblings in both senses. Sinclair spoke of Sebald devotees who try to retrace his steps and fail. Sebald was a storyteller, Sinclair reminds us.
Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal details research that demonstrates how susceptible we are to unconscious messages. Perhaps the most astonishing example he gives is of the power teachers’ expectation: when a teacher is told a certain group of average pupils are brilliant, after eight months 80% of these pupils show an increase of 10 IQ points, with 20% of this group gaining an incredible 30 or more IQ points. Therefore labelling pupils as gifted is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we consider how, in Wales, for example, the education minister has decided that all pupils from Y2 onwards will sit literacy and numeracy tests, the results of which will be reported to parents, it is likely that many low achieving pupils will stagnate, as their disappointed mums or dads confirm to their children that they are not that clever after all. Furthermore, after reading G for Genes (see review) I am convinced that reporting test scores to parents on such a narrow range of accomplishments (ie literacy and numeracy) rather than emphasizing a child’s potential, is extremely destructive.
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!”
I live in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing for miles. (And by ‘nothing’ I mean hills, fields, farms, streams, clouds and sheep). There are no other houses, no shops, very little traffic. I drive to work and rarely meet anyone coming the other way. I drive home and stare into the setting sun. At night the house creaks like an old ship. In the mornings, in the summer, there is no better place to live. In the winter, when everything freezes up, the track to the house becomes an ice slide, we can’t get out, and nothing can get up here. We’re marooned. And if the water supply shuts off and the boiler breaks down, we might as well be living in a tent. So I watch nature’s clock for the tell tale signs of spring: the snowdrops, the daffodils, the first green buds on the hawthorn. And when everything explodes into blossom, it is symphonic and sublime, and then the cold brutality of the dark months is at last seen off and life never feels so good.
Every Good Friday, when I was a child, friends and I used to walk the ten miles or so to the top of Twm Barlwm, a mountain dominating the reclaimed marshlands of south Wales. In my imagination, uncorrupted by historical detail, this is where the Celts stood fast, watching over the slow encroachment of Romans stationed in the fort of Caerleon, just below. It was a mountain of war, and later, in my teens, I witnessed real battles as gangs from nearby towns fought with chains and axes, as determined as the Celts and the Romans not to give an inch. I watched these events from the safety of the ferns, and sometime later, when the gangs had gone, returned with my dog to wander along the mountain’s spine, to the strange mound at its summit. From there, under the steel grey sky, it felt as if all of the world, and the future, was spread out before me.
Arthur Machen’s Hill of Dreams is a book based on his boyhood love of Twm Barlwm, and Machen’s later work, particularly his London Adventure is a hike through the demi-monde of Edwardian London. He was a flaneur who perfected the art of wandering. He wanders London as he wandered the Welsh hills. When, in my early twenties, I followed Machen’s footsteps and moved from south Wales to west London, I worked hard at being a flaneur. I loved strolling aimlessly through the leafy suburbs, and in the city I adored the river’s muddy allure. But I didn’t get to be a seriously good at it, I was Welsh boy in Dr Martens. I didn’t have the style.
After my own decade and a half of London adventure, I moved back to Wales, this time away from the industrial south and into the central wilderness. Here I crave nothing more than to be rambling in the mountains, getting closer to the clouds, and sometimes above them.
I tend to walk with a small bunch of serious hikers. These people have all the kit, the Nordic poles, heavy duty water bottles, stainless steel thermos flasks. They study maps. Some of them have beards. They are not wanderers, they are athletes. Usually these walks take six hours or so, and often cover twenty miles. We struggle up steep slopes and spill over and down them again.
We usually start in a car park and at some point manage to find a pub, often an ancient, hidden place, a few dating back to the thirteenth century, some even earlier. I’ve come upon remote hillside churches with eerie murals, like Death wielding a shovel, or St George slaying what I supposed was a dragon but which looked more like a giant, angry sparrow. I know the twisted spine of Cwmyoy, and the tumbling, secluded magic of Llanthony and Tintern.
Most of my fellow hikers have travelled this way before, and they know the stories. Up high in the mountains I’ve seen the wreck of a Wellington bomber that lost its way in the fog; the caves where the Chartists hid their weapons as they planned revolution. There’s the poet’s chair, and the grave of a famous racehorse. There are standing stones, remnants of Iron Age forts, terraced ramparts, a hermit’s cell. I’ve looked across the plains of Herefordshire and seen the blue remembered hills of Shropshire. Look south and there’s the Severn, glinting.
I like writers who are walkers: Rosseau, Wordsworth, Machen, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald. Wandering has a great pedigree. In their books one phrase reappears time after time: solvitur ambulando – you can solve it by walking. After hiking all day whatever problems you have disappear, and the simple pleasures of sandwiches, or a flask of tea, with the land spinning about you, miles and miles of it, on and on, never ending, whisk all worldly cares up into the clouds, to be lost forever in the vast ancient wilderness.
n.b. this originally appeared in the Awfully Big Adventure Blog.