A few words about Jacquie James

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“It was not that long ago it first occurred to me
That my mother was a person in her own right.
And now I realise how very lucky I have been
And there, but for the grace of God, go I, go I.”*

My Mum – Jacquie James – is 70 years old today. I could write thousands of words about her but the thirteen hundred or so that I’ve done will have to do and I’m well aware that it won’t even scratch the surface of Jacqueline Muriel Alexander James nee Walker.

You may not know this – though a select band of you will – but Jacquie James is amazing woman. Born in London just after the World War II she was brought up in Clifton in Bristol where her father Frank Walker was a professor of geography at Bristol University. One of my earliest memories is travelling to Bristol on the train with Mum to visit my grandparents at their home on Lansdowne Road in Clifton. I can remember falling asleep on the train and waking up in the enormous house where they lived during term times. We went to Bristol a lot when I was growing up – it’s my home town and though I’ve never felt like a Bristolian in any way, shape or form I used to love going there and some of the happiest memories from my childhood are of the times I spent in Bristol with my extended family.

Mum trained as an Occupational Therapist in the 1960s down in Devon and having moved over the Severn Bridge to the Vale of Glamorgan, before I began school and then during my school holidays she used to take me out with her on visits up into the South Wales Valleys and all across South Wales where I met children of my own age with profound disabilities and in doing so gave me insights that to this day I am grateful for. I’m not sure the occupational therapist of today would be allowed to do what Mum did but it and I have so many happy memories of travelling with her over the top of the valleys in her Renault 4 and then her weirdly coloured Ford Escort chatting away and listening to Radio Wales – Mum is a naturalised Welsh woman – it’s an old family joke but it’s a statement of truth.

“When I was a teenager I really did believe
That my parents had adopted me.
And the way I carried on they must have thought
They’d brought the wrong little baby home from maternity.

I’d like to say I’m sorry but my
Mother dear, she already knows.”*

Mum has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from an early age and I know that there have been times when she has really struggled with this but she never let this affect the way she was with me or my sister Cathy even when I was being a normal child and behaving in a horrible way towards her – she always let me know that she loved me and would always be there for me and she always was – save for that time when I got dumped by a girlfriend and she went off on holiday to Malta with Dad.**

Mum has a gift for anything craft related that she puts her hand to – in her time she amongst many, many things she’s had a go at, has knitted, made lace, made things out of glass that are beautiful and she does these all these things with seemingly no effort. She’s also done flower arranging and was a member of an arranging group over in Bristol which led to one of my favourite conversations that we had about popular culture.

What you need to know about my Mum is that she doesn’t really do popular culture – she was a teenager in the 60s as was my Dad and their record collection had one EP by The Beatles in it – one!?! Her and Dad were always more into classical music and jazz so for her to have heard of a pop group is a rare event – I reckon that when it comes to the bands I’ve liked over the years she’d be able to name New Order, Happy Mondays*** and Super Furry Animals. Anyway I digress, this is how the conversation went down:

Mum: “I was at flower arranging over in Bristol the other night.”

A disinterested me: “Oh yes.”

Mum: “One of the other members, her son is in a band.”

Me: “Oh right.”

Mum: “I think they’re quite famous, have you heard of Portishead?”

Me: “What?!?!? Portishead?!?! Mum, they’re only one of my most favourite bands!!! Who is her son?”

Mum: “I’m not sure, I don’t know her surname.”

And we never found out who the son was – but I love my Mum for being so blasé about such things.

One famous person she did meet was Jimmy Savile – she was a student at the time and he kissed her and whenever we sat down to watch Jim’ll Fix It back in the day she’d always comment that Savile was horrible person. Mum’s always know.

Mum is one of the most selfless people I have ever met – I’m always surprised when I ring home and actually get her on the phone. She is on the board of charities, helps people out with offers of support and amazing meals and travels the country to visit places she’s never been to before and places that she knows and loves such as North Yorkshire where her parents had their home and where we as a family spent our summers long before it became ‘Heartbeat Country’. This year she’s been to the Netherlands to visit a jazz festival and only last week she flew up to Edinburgh to meet her pen pal Susan from Seattle who she’s been writing to for over 50 years.

One of things that I’ve been really proud of Mum and Dad for doing is that they fight battles at their local church – they were always pro-women priests and in doing so they showed to me that despite their apparent conformity to middle class norms and standards they can be quite radical in their outlook on life and relationships and that’s something which has cost them friends at times and there are people who don’t talk to them anymore because of the things they’ve fought for. You might say well they are better off without those people and you’re right they are but sometimes it takes courage to take the stands that Mum has done over the years and I’ll say it again I’m proud of my Mum – she doesn’t take shit from anybody.

We’ve had our rows and silence over the years and they’ve been humdingers at times but as I grow older and my sons are turning into young men my appreciation of what she did for me when I was their age impresses me more and more. She didn’t say “No” just to annoy me or stop me having fun, she did it because she loved me, wanted me to be safe and wanted the best for me and surely that’s all you need from your Mum.

I still need my Mum every now and again.

“If I ever get arrested by the C.I.A.
Because they take me for a foreign spy.
They won’t need no lie-detector, all they’ll have to do
Is make me look into my mother’s eyes
And I’ll tell them anything they like.”*

*Taken from The Divine Comedy’s song ‘Mother Dear’ – written by Neil Hannon. See it here: 

** Okay so I was 20 at the time but I was still upset.

*** I still owe my Dad £25 for a trip to see the Happy Mondays up in Manchester back in 1990 – I know, £25 for the concert ticket and bus up there from Cardiff – those were the days!!!

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1000 or so words about me being a Swansea City supporter in a Cardiff comprehensive school

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This week after the Sunday football was over I got asked on Facebook if I was bitter about Cardiff City beating Manchester City on Sunday. I’d put up a picture on Facebook of some sheep running through a town centre and the caption was along the lines of it being a celebration of the win in Cardiff. The photo came from Twitter and was re-tweeted by the ex-Welsh rugby international cousin of a friend, he thought it was funny as did quite a few of my friends which shows that not all Welsh people cry “Racism” when jokes are made about Wales or say “Well they wouldn’t say it about black people would they?” when people like Anne Robinson make tongue in cheek comments about the Welsh. An oft-repeated belief that isn’t actually true is that Americans don’t get irony, the truth of the matter is that some do and some don’t and it’s the same kind of Welsh people who don’t get irony whenever anybody says anything ironic or humorously critical about Wales that go running to the police claiming that a crime has been committed when what they really should be doing is learning the definition of the word racism and whilst they’re at it maybe xenophobia too.

I’ve supported Swansea City since the 1977/78 season, my Dad’s family were from Swansea and having spent a great deal of their lives away from the city his parents – my Gran and Grandpa – retired to a flat down in Langland Bay where we would go and visit them every other week for a roast dinner and a trip to St Helen’s to watch Swansea RFC. My logic for supporting the Swans was this, up until that point in my life I had supported Liverpool but decided that if I supported Swansea RFC then it made total sense to me to support Swansea City AFC and that’s what I did. Little did I know that this momentous decision would cause me many issues throughout my childhood right up until the age of 16 when certain people who tried to make my life a misery at school left the place to face their challenges in the real world. It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered that a friend from those days also supported the Swans but kept quiet during our time in school for fear of what would happen to him should it get out. It was only when the Swans got promoted to the Premiership that he put a Swans badge on Facebook profile and I asked him “Er…do you support the Swans then?” that the whole story came out 21 years after we had left school.

Oh yeah, what I haven’t explained is that from the age of 11 I went to school in Cardiff – I was a Swansea City supporter in a Cardiff secondary school.

I would get threatened in school by various people – Geography classes last thing on a Wednesday were always a particular joy and I had to hang around after them asking pointless questions of my teacher in the hope that the two boys threatening me would be lured away by the need for a cigarette behind the sports hall. I’d then check that the coast was clear before making a run for it and escaping home. These same boys and their older brothers were also in the Scout troop that my parents sent me to when we moved to Cardiff and one lunchtime in school they all tried to attack me at the bottom of the school field and having escaped from that they let me know that after the next troop meeting my time would come and that there would be no escape then. My Mum got me into another Scout troop in the middle of Pontcanna Fields instead which even though it was in the middle of an – at that time – unlit field and twice the distance from our house she thought would be safer for me and she was right. Those walks back across the pitch black field to the safety of the bottom of Cathedral Road in the middle of winter were scary but brilliant fun. I loved my time in Scouts there even if the hut and everything inside it burnt down in mysterious circumstances a short time later.

Previously to this I had lived in the (up) market town of Cowbridge and the older boys in Cowbridge Comprehensive School who lived in my street took great joy in repeatedly kicking my football into the river behind our street – worry not it always got caught up in a wire barrier a little bit downstream – I got told that if I went up to the top of our cul de sac that I would get beaten up as Swansea City fans were not allowed up there and so developed my football skills in the lost art of playing footie on a slope. There was one boy in particular called oh I don’t know – let’s say Alan who even if he was out on a date, with his parents or on bob a job week duty would duly shout and hurl abuse at me in the street and tell me what he was going to do to me if and when he got hold of me. At the time my friends in Y Bont Faen Primary School knew that I and several others of us supported the Swans and it really wasn’t an issue which makes the irony all the greater that it was someone from Y Bont Faen who was the person on Facebook this week asking me if I was bitter that Cardiff City had beaten Manchester City.

Anyway the answer is genuinely no, I’m not bitter about Cardiff winning. I had some crappy times in my childhood related to my support of Swansea City, times when I was genuinely scared and upset at what happened to me and what was being threatened. On events such as geography field trips to Porthcawl, or a week at Storey Arms I had a sense of fear hanging over me and it was only due to decent people in my year speaking up for me and looking out for me that I was able to get through these times but I never once stopped supporting the Swans nor did I feel that I needed to retaliate and nor did I hate Cardiff City. My real friends – they knew that I supported the Swans and couldn’t care less that I did nor me that they supported the Red Bluebirds.

Of course I hope that the Swans win both the derby matches this year, of course I hope that we do better than them in the Premiership but do I want Cardiff City to crash and burn and get relegated in their first season in what our American cousins call the EPL?

I don’t think I do…

Snow! What is it good for?

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Twice in my life I’ve been snowed in. Both times that this occurred was when I was a young boy and Iived in a small town west of Cardiff called Cowbridge. This wasn’t your 21st century “Oh a little bit of snow has fallen and has brought the entire country to standstill snow.” Oh no, this was full on nobody coming in, nobody going out of the entire town and it was epic fun!

Obviously school was closed for the duration and we had to listen to local radio to see what was going on and it turned out that for the first time ever our local commercial station (CBC) was doing a better job at this than BBC Radio Wales. What you have to understand is that this was a time when listening to commercial radio was an act of class war, nobody where we lived listened to it but we were pretty sure that the people on the council estates elsewhere in the town did and so it was that for one brief period the working and middle class of Cowbridge were united in their need for information about what schools were closed (all of them) and if we were going to starve to death. In houses all throughout Cowbridge people tuned into CBC (A lot of us for the first time ever “You mean this radio station has commercials on it? How novel!”) and we got the information we needed all soundtracked by Supertramp, Sad Café, Mungo Jerry and some ex-hospital radio DJ who had got his big break the previous year when the previous DJ fell down some stairs after the CBC Christmas party and died three weeks later.*

Nearly all of us went sledging down The Three Fields every single day that we were snowed in – I had a purple parker at the time with faux fur on the hood which held up well in the snow and I had a sledge which I’d got for Christmas from Roberts’ Sports in town – my Dad used to get a 10% discount there as he helped to build Cowbridge Squash Courts and is an honorary life member of the squash club – and that was my pride and joy. Not only was it speedy on the snow but it would go hell for leather when we went sledging on the sand dunes at Merthyr Mawr too. The real hardcore sledgers went down Constitution Hill on the ice, those of us who weren’t so stupid/brave went in the field nearest to the road and aimed for a gap in the hedge at the bottom which led to the banks of the River Thaw with the aim of turning our sledge over and bailing out before we went into the river and drowning – several people who were new to the area thought we were not very good at sledging and by trying to impress us with the sledging skills managed to carry on into the Thaw necessitating a rescue before they got swept down the river all the way down to the power station at the mouth of the river in Aberthaw.

I lived in a cul de sac called Mill Park which was right next to the Three Fields yet my proximity to this sledging paradise was not enough to stop me from sledging down the cleared paths on the road – I imagined myself to be full on bob sleigher on my plastic orange sledge until I was told in no uncertain terms that my actions were causing the cleared path to ice over and causing people to fall over and I was also told that this could quite possibly lead to someone either dying from one of these falls or at the very least they’d require hip replacement surgery and that would be down to me. I haven’t Googled to see if a plastic sledge sledging on a cleared path can cause such a thing to happen but maybe I should so that my children can be prepared if such a situation every arises in their childhood.

The other thing I need to tell them is that if they ever find themselves in knee deep snow then what they shouldn’t do is stand still for too long – I made this mistake and literally got frozen to the spot, there is archive footage out there** filmed on our cine camera showing me stuck in my boots whilst someone – I presume it was my Mum or Dad – heartlessly stood by and filmed me during my torment and it was only when my sister Cathy stepped in and came to my rescue that I was freed from my ice prison but seriously, I could have died.

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By far the best thing ever that happened when the snow hit was the arrival of an RAF Sea King helicopter with emergency supplies of food, milk and other stuff for us as we were in danger of running out of essential supplies. This bit of our “snow in” got us on the telly too – we all went over to Cowbridge RFC to await the helicopter and what will always stay with me is that as the helicopter flew in to land my Mum waved the thing down onto the ground – I was seriously impressed though looking back now on her selfless act I have reached the conclusion that I’m pretty sure that the RAF pilot would have been qualified enough to land his craft in the middle of massive rugby/cricket pitch without a mother of two in her thirties being there to help with the landing procedure. We unloaded all the supplies and then the dads pushed the supermarket delivery trolleys down to the supermarket in town and of course all us kids sat on the trolleys on top of the boxes of food and cigarettes down there too – we had a great time which got even better when we watched the local news later that day.

It was on whatever HTV called their Welsh news programme at the time, Wales This Evening, Wales at 6, This is Wales, Welsh News Now!, What’s Going On in Wales At the Mo, We Couldn’t Give a Toss What Happened in England Today  – anyway it was on that and we got to see the film shot from the helicopter and there in pride of place accompanied by the sound of the helicopter rotor blades and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeries was my Mum guiding the copter down – I was so proud.

Well I’m sure you can work out what happened next – the thaw came, the snow melted, CBC went bust and we all went back to school with stories that would last us – well okay me – for years to come and then rather fantastically it all happened again a couple of years later and it was just as much fun.

*Not sure if that is in anyway true so don’t quote me on that.

** “Out there” in this case means the cine film that my sister and I got transferred onto a VHS videotape for my parents’ 25 wedding anniversary back in 1992 – some dodgy bloke in Canton did it for us and he gave us a discount for cash.