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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My weekend at home in Cardiff

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I recently went home to Cardiff and here is what I did during my weekend there when basically I ate way too much beef, watched lots of sport on TV, went to Spillers Records, Servini’s Café, Got Beef restaurant, Joe’s ice cream parlour (the best ice cream in the world) and saw Super Furry Animals and Belle & Sebastian in concert on consecutive evenings.

Cardiff has changed so much in the thirteen years since I left and the truth is that I’ve never really missed the place much, I get to go back and see my Mum and Dad and make use of their house and go and watch the ruby and take my sons swimming before heading back to Dorset. This time however I was on my own and take some time to walk around on my own and I noticed even more of changes to the place. It felt more vibrant and more like the cosmopolitan cities and towns that I’ve been to elsewhere in the UK. I mean the city centre has the usual city centre cloned feel in places but the arcades feel different and offer you unique experiences, I saw street fairs in side streets off Albany Road in the east of the city and the amount of independent  coffee shops, cafes and restaurants that exist now is just incredible. I did use to feel that sometimes Cardiff aimed too high and that it tried to be bigger than it actually was and that what it tried to do was unsustainable but my feeling on going home this time around was that Cardiff is cooler now than it’s ever been.

My friend Owain’s mum had brought Got Beef to my attention when I was over at her house with my sons just after Christmas and Owain made it pretty clear that that’s where he wanted to go for our meal out before the Super Furry Animals gig and we all loved it  – the restaurant itself was informal with benches set around big tables and whilst the setting of the Gabalfa end of Whitchurch Road in Cardiff might not be a trendy or flash as down by the quayside of Cardiff Bay who cares when a massive burger weighed with wonderful toppings is placed in front of you? I had the double Animal Style burger which was full of way too many things and which was simply incredible. I had normal fries but also got to try some sweet potato fries as recommended to me by everybody and they were gorgeous – I’ll be having full portion of them next time. Owain had the Breaking Bad inspired Heisen Burger complete with blue onions – and that was wolfed down by him washed down by a very trendy looking German beer.

Do I have any criticisms? The only thing that I did notice but which didn’t really affect me as I was on soft drinks was that the beer list seem to have been rather depleted and my friends were limited in what they could drink but apart from that I couldn’t fault Got Beef and I’m looking forward to going back there later on in the summer.

And so on to the Students’ Union at Cardiff University to see Super Furry Animals! The first time I saw them play there was in 1996 in the small hall upstairs at the SU – Terminal 396 I think it was called then. It wasn’t a massive crowd and Owain reminded me that as he and his friends were all 15-16 years of age at the time I ended up buying them all beers for them – reader, I have no recollection of this but he swears it’s true. Anyway 2015 saw SFA reuniting to play a tour in support of the reissue of the Mwng album and having secured tickets via a secret password protected pre-sale so it was that Owain Dave and I found ourselves in the Great Hall and it was just the strangest feeling; I’d not been there since 2001 when I saw The Divine Comedy and basically the place hadn’t changed in anyway – it was freaky. I spent so much of my time and money in there when I was a student at school and university and to be there again after such a long time brought back so many good memories.

Super Furry Animals played for over two hours and performed 25 songs* – I have no complaints about the gig, they were on top form, better than I could have ever hoped to have imagined and I really think that the six years away had done them good. The last time I saw them at The Coal Exchange in Cardiff back in 2005 it wasn’t a good gig, it felt a bit forced and lethargic but this, this was amazing and just re-enforced my love for the band. It was also re-enforced that standing gigs aren’t for me anymore. Maybe I’d forgotten how rude and how physical standing at a gig can be but it was constant – I didn’t spoil the gig for me but I could some people getting angrier as it progressed and elbows were flying and feet were kicking. SFAOK!

Sunday saw me back at Owain’s house for a roast dinner before we headed out to see Belle and Sebastian. I bloody love them – some people find them too twee but I couldn’t care less, the tweeness is part of the appeal, that and just really good songs. St David’s Hall is another past haunt of mine and that hadn’t really changed either, the crowd was a bit subdued during the support act but by the time B&S came on stage the hall was packed and the crowd was a lovely one, there was singing, clapping and lots and lots of dancing as singer and band founder Stuart Murdoch got people from seemingly everywhere bar Cardiff up on the stage to dance with him. B&S are a really talented band and the set featured songs from throughout their career** including from what was referred to as the “dubious part of it” namely the ‘Fold Your Hands You Look Like a Peasant’ album which in my humble opinion is underrated.

There were short films, lots of instrument changes and lots of self-deprecating humour from Murdoch and guitarist Stevie Jackson. I’d not seen B&S for 13 years and the last time I saw them was at the same venue in my old life when I still lived in Cardiff – if I could then I would have seen them again on the same tour, it was that good and ignore the detractors, B&S are a great band with a fantastic back catalogue which should be celebrated they are a band who will never really be loved by the hipsters and media. The love and happiness I saw at that gig was infectious and their latest album is as good as anything they’ve released before and in Nobody’s Empire features one of their best songs ever – have a listen now!

*Setlist here: http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/super-furry-animals/2015/great-hall-cardiff-university-students-union-cardiff-wales-3bc83078.html

**Setlist here: http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/belle-and-sebastian/2015/st-davids-hall-cardiff-wales-33c838b9.html

A little thing about The Darling Buds

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Last night one of my school friends (Hello Dave Morgan) tweeted me and made me feel really old. Apparently it is twenty five years ago this month since we went to see The Darling Buds in The Hanging Gardens in Cardiff University’s students’ union. Now some of you will be saying “Who are The Darling Buds?!?” and some of you will be saying “Ah, The Darling Buds!” I’m in the latter camp and will stand up now and say that I loved The Darling Buds.

I had the t-shirt, I still have the vinyl and I still have happy memories of not only seeing them in concerts in South Wales but I also met them and interviewed them in a pub over in Caerleon with my mate Dominic where they broke our little indie music hearts by telling is that they (and also The Wedding Present) used a drum machine on their debut albums which listening now to both of them is pretty bloody obvious. I’d bump into them at gigs in TJ’s* in Newport afterwards and Harley and Andrea much to my amazement would say “Hello.” to me and ask how things were going. I got threatened by the bloke in front of me** at a Darling Buds gig in TJ’s where Dave was standing next to me in a suit having come from his Duke of Edinburgh Award’s er….award night and do you know what? The Darling Buds were a bloody great pop band.

At the time they released their first few singles coverage of Welsh bands (be they Welsh or non-Welsh speaking) was virtually non-existent in the British media save for John Peel playing stuff like Datblygu and so when Peel started playing The Darling Buds and we found out that a) they made cool guitar pop music and b) were from down the road then we had to like them. I got those first few singles on 7” and 12” in Spillers Records and played them over and over again. I ignored the lazy comparisons to The Primitives and then they sort of went big – not big as in a stella career that lasted decades and made them household names. No big as in they signed to a major label, got on Top of the Pops, and they played a gig for Radio 1 live from Whitchurch High School in Cardiff!*** 

It didn’t last long, there were more albums after their debut Pop Said but people seemed to lose interest and a few years down the line they split up but for me they were a really important band. They showed other Welsh kids that you could do it; you could form a band in Wales, play gigs, make a record, get a deal (for better for worse) on a major label and achieve the Holy Grail  – get on Top of the Pops.

I’ll say it again, The Darling Buds were a great band, they made me very happy, gave me some lovely memories and I’ll be playing them loudly over the weekend.  

 

*I was in a ‘riot’ once at TJ’s – it was the night Huggy Bear played and at one point they asked all the men to move back from the front to let the women through and it all kicked off. Punches were thrown, beer cans went flying, less enlightened men argued with the liberals in the crowd and John who owned the place had to get on stage and calm things down reminding everybody that they were there to listen to the music and have a good night out. John was obeyed and the gig resumed.

** I was singing and he was drunk – it wasn’t a good mix.

***The headmaster there at the time was called Robin Hood. This won’t sound like much but the South Wales Echo wrote an article about the gig and this was a big deal because at the time they tended to ignore popular cultural stuff like that so to see The Darling Buds in the paper was indeed a big deal for “the kids.”

Some views on parenting.

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It’s been a fair few weeks since I last blogged and in that time my eldest son Gruff (It’s pronounced Griff. No it is, really, so can you just accept that, move on and carry on reading my blog. Well actually it’s no weirder than the different ways of saying “ough” in various English words so get over it, stop being so parochial about language and read the blog.) turned 10. I’m not going to go down the route that many parents do by saying “How the hell did that happen?!?!?!” I know very well how it happened and it involved a very nice time with my wife on a wet afternoon in a tent whilst on holiday in the Vendee in 2002. My wife got pregnant and nine months later Gruff (Remember, it’s pronounced Griff.) was born and that was that.

So 10 years old?!?!? Seriously though how the hell did that happen?!?!? I look at my boy and he’s this blonde haired bundle of loveliness, he works hard at school, loves nothing better than to lie in bed listening to Test Match Special or go round the park and kick a ball about. He supports Swansea City, shouts for Wales in the rugby, is good at maths, likes reading, enjoys a fried egg, plays basketball for the Dorchester Tigers and goes swimming for the West Dorset Warriors twice a week – there’s loads more to him than that but those are the things that came to mind as sat and typed this out.

I love my Gruff (Come on now, how are you doing with that name?) but God alive he annoys the crap out of me sometimes. New parents out there it is okay to say this, social services will not come knocking on your door to take your children away, you won’t get struck down by a thunderbolt, your child won’t hate you – nothing bad will happened because you feel like this because it’s normal and okay to have such feelings and I know I annoyed my Mum and Dad throughout and beyond my childhood.

It would be wrong to make a list of things that Gruff does that annoy me – he wouldn’t thank me for it but I’m going to give some examples of things that some hypothetical ten year old boy might do that could possibly annoy me a hypothetical 41 year old father of two originally from Cardiff who now lives in Dorchester   with his wife of fourteen years called Emily:

No of course I’m not – what kind of father do you think I am?

Gruff (You know how to say it now don’t you?) is 10 and I what freaks me out quite a bit about that is that I’m older now than my Dad was when I was ten but my brain can’t quite compute that. I still wear jeans and t-shirts when not at work, I go to the occasional gig, shave my head whilst keeping a beard (A quick question; my wife thinks I look like a fundamentalist when I do this but I saw some bloke in London with the same look recently and he looked damn cool – what do you all think?), I still get excited about films, books and albums coming out – what is my point here? Er…um…not I’m not actually sure, and why exactly does this freak me out? I don’t know. Am I turning into my father? Not really, we’re alike in many ways but unalike to so many others: e.g. I never wear slacks.

What I am aware of is that the things I swore that I’d never say or do in my parental relationship with my sons I’ve ended up doing. The things my parents said to me when I was younger and that annoyed the crap out of me have poured forth from my mouth and I react inwardly with horror as I hear myself saying them – no actually that’s a big fat lie. I hear them and suddenly there is a realisation bursting through my brain and blinding me with a flash of acknowledgement: Oh my God, my parents were right!

Some examples follow:

  • I don’t care what some other kid does in his house, his parents must be idiots if they let their child do what Gruff is saying his friend is allowed to do.
  • Actually this is my house and my son will live by the rules that Emily and I lay down and no Gruff, there is no negotiation about this.
  • Who knew that an untidy bedroom could piss me off so much – my Mum used to get so stressed with my room being in a state and I get it now, I so do – sorry Mum.
  • You will go to bed at the prescribed times Gruff: 1) you need your sleep and 2) your Mum and I need time to ourselves.
  • “I hate swimming, I want to give it up, please don’t make me go.” “Gruff, you’re going.”

 There is no debate, I have turned into a dictator ruling over my children with an iron rod and I will be obeyed and I won’t feel guilty about this and the reason for my lack of guilt is this: my boys are lovely young men and when I see their fellow pupils in school with them, the ones who are just as nice and just as well behaved are the ones who have strict parents, ones who don’t let them get away with murder. The little shits in their class are the ones whose parents let them run wild like feral creatures, say that their son is their “best friend” – stop that right now, he isn’t, he’s your son and the rules of your relationship with him are different. Parents who can’t see that their little ray of sunshine has done anything wrong ever and who live in some mythical dreamworld where if anything bad happens involving their child then it is never – never I tell you – their child’s fault even if there is HD CCTV evidence backed up with a sworn signed affidavit from the 23 other children that saw their Devil’s spawn do what he did. Wishy washy, modern away with the fairies parents drive me mad and they park on the zig zags outside school too as their child for some reason can’t walk more than 50 yards to get in the car to get to their home which is well within walking distance from the school itself – walk for God’s sake, walk!!!

So Gruff is 10 years old and the truth is that I love him with every bone in my body and I am very proud to be his Dad.

My Life as a Singer: Part 2 – To Jerusalem and Beyond!

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The last time I wrote about my life in singing I reached the point where my voice had broken and I’d given it up – I wasn’t really enjoying singing at that point and I had other things going on in my exciting thrill a minute teenage life – that’s right, I was an altar server at Llandaff Cathedral. I loved being a server so much that I even joined the Guild of Servers and met with other servers once a month at various churches around Cardiff – I got a medal to wear and staggeringly there were about five of us who were around the same age that did this. I also served the altar when there were school Eucharist services and on more than one occasion the priest giving the sacrament couldn’t finish off the altar wine that was left and so I had to down half a chalice of the stuff – anyway enough of this exciting Church in Wales related fun, though an altar serving blog might be good – oh there are tales to be told, it was a cut throat world the world of altar serving: lies, deceit, betrayal…

I also joined the Scouts, went hiking around the countryside, nearly getting shot by some North Walean as we went through his garden – it was a right of way – basically having a great old time. Then in August 1987 I was on holiday in West Wales and Dad told me that when we got back he’d set up an audition for me for the South Glamorgan Youth Choir. I really had no intention of going, I didn’t want to sing, I didn’t want to spend every Tuesday night back at the Friary Centre singing. Anyway the next week I found myself in a room with Helena Braithwaite and Jan Ball two people who I’d known since I was five years old and I sang a Welsh hymn to them and I was in and so began five of the happiest years of my life.

I’d been in SGYC for a month or so when it was mentioned that the choir were off for a weekend away to Boys Village in St Athan – and so it was that on a cold Friday in November 1987 that we all arrived at a educational centre just down the road from a large cement works in one direction, Aberthaw power station in another and then to the north of us the St Athan RAF base. I was sharing a room with Matthew Glyn whose Mum and Dad sang with my Dad in the Ardwyn Singers and the weekend lay ahead of us. It was a weekend of tons of singing rehearsals, food, laughter, a guy called Matthew Mudge playing The Last Post on his bugle as Saturday night turned into Remembrance Sunday and also it was the weekend of the Cricket World Cup final which we stayed up to watch and then both Matthew and I overslept and missed the first rehearsal of the day which we thought had blotted our copy books with Helena as we got the mother of all bollockings  – she told my Dad later that night that she’d been amused by the sight of us trying to sneak in the back of the rehearsal room without being seen.* The highlight for some of the choir was the annual Boys Village disco on the Saturday night – for others the highlight was the tiny, tiny bar that Boys Village had and where it seemed that at any age it was okay to get a pint. I didn’t drink at the time so for me it was the disco – I could look at the girls in the choir and dream of actually talking to them – I didn’t want full on get down and dirty coming five times in an evening sex – I just want to be able to talk to them.

Just after Boys Village two of my friends from school Dave and Huw joined and my time in SGYC just got better and better. In the summer of 1988 we travelled to Llangollen to compete in the International Eisteddfod there – we were so cocky and confident that we knew we were going to win. BBC Wales didn’t though, they’d put their horses in the New Zealand carriage even flying over with them on the plane over and so when a Choir from a place down the road in Cardiff from their studios won it threw them a bit. We did Christmas broadcasts on HTV, made loads of appearances at St David’s Hall singing in things such as a Sondheim prom and gala performances of things such as Carmina Burana (That was on the night of the World Cup final in 1990 – Helena had a knack of booking concerts and rehearsals on the days of big sporting occasions.) We did lots of concerts at Llandaff Cathedral including one where I played maracas during a set of Spanish carols! We travelled to London to sing in the Festival of Music for Youth at the Royal Festival Hall which we won – of course we did, we were the South Glamorgan Youth Choir sponsored by the Principality Building Society! They were brilliant times but the best thing about being in a choir was going on a foreign tour.

My Dad was a keen and very good rugby player back in the day and the culture of the rugby player back then was (and for some still is) to play hard both on and off the pitch but when he came back from his first choir tour he told my Mum that he didn’t need to go on rugby tours anymore. Choir tours are hardcore, they are getting up at seven am to get the bus to your next stop and making a call in at the nearest available place to stock up on beer and ice to put in the cooler that you bought at your first port of call on the first day of the door. It’s drinking and singing all day and then having a drinking session after the concert until the early hours when you have to be up to get on the coach, it sees men literally falling off the coach when it stops and they’re heading off to find more booze and possibly some food, it’s about choir members being fined for not drinking enough, or getting fined for not finishing a huge American meal that they didn’t even order. Choir tours are where you found out that you really didn’t like some people who you thought you knew and others you realise that actually they are okay.

I met my first girlfriend on a choir tour – her name was Laura she was in the alto section and we got to know each other when we went to Israel in 1989 to sing in a choir festival and on a trip to the Dead Sea she sat behind me and Dave and knowing what school we went to asked if we knew a guy called Martin Evans – of course we did – that was Orville! Anyway I sat next to Laura on the way back to Jerusalem and was that the start of our relationship, my first love, my first kiss? No of course not, that took another six months before I finally got the guts to ask her out and we became an official “SGYC Choir Couple” – we lasted eight months before we split up and began to score points against each other by bitching and moaning to everybody – ah young love.

I had a couple more quick gropes and snogs with girls in the choir and then went out for – again – eight months with an alto called Catherine, she dumped me just before we were going to go and see Erasure in London and she told me a few years ago on Facebook that once we’d split up she was cut dead by lots of people in SGYC – the world of a choir can be a bitchy, harsh place. Anyway in conclusion re: relationships in choir, I always went out with altos and never sopranos – this was either because I sat behind them in rehearsals and got to know them better than I ever did sopranos, or maybe it was because sopranos didn’t appeal to me – let’s be honest here, they can be high maintenance – I don’t know, but what I do know is this: when I saw the woman who I would fall in love with at first sight**, the woman I would marry at Llandaff Cathedral in 1999, the woman who would have my children and the woman who I would leave the place that I grew up in to be with – well that woman was an alto.***

Right, back to Israel – the tour was bloody hard work, we rehearsed every morning with a conductor called Lazlo Heltay, and sang Haydn’s Nelson Mass for a concert at the end of the tour and then after lunch we’d relax a bit and then practice our stuff for our other performance in the Zimrya festival itself. We then had to go to the Zimrya performances every night and sit though other choirs that we didn’t think were as good as us. These concerts went on for hours and hours and we did all we could to relieve the boredom – at one point paper aeroplanes were flying down from the back of the auditorium and when Guido Jones’ reached the stage it got one of the loudest rounds of applause that evening – that was also the point where the compere asked that we all refrain from launching paper planes.

Our tour to Israel was also when we got called an example of the “Sick British Society” by choristers from other choirs after an incident that required a hospital trip for one choir member during which – according to the no doubt apocryphal legend – electrodes were attached to his testicles to try and bring him around at which point he sat upright and when asked if he knew where he was and who he was asked where his wife and children were. He wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. Helena and the rest of the choir staff gave us the bollocking of all bollockings after that but the fact is that we sang well and got standing ovations when we performed out there  – result!

The SGYC choir tour of 1991 was to Canada and the USA. We flew into Toronto where a lady called Jean Crook took my suitcase by mistake – she returned it the next day but I didn’t get it back until we flew out of Toronto airport two weeks later as the choir staff didn’t think I was able to get a bus back to the airport the next day. I was very well looked after by the choir who gave me money to but replacement clothes, music for my solos (Oh yeah, I was a soloist by this point which is a whole other story.) Jean Crook several months later sent me twenty quid from Canada by way of an apology – nice lady. Our first stay was in Stratford, Ontario which was a small town that had an annual Shakespeare Festival but for me it will always remind me of where we met Spaz the dog who became known as “The First Dog We Met on Tour With An Unfortunate Name.” The second was a dog in Bridgewater, New York who went by the name of Bastard and who we met whilst walking in the sight of a nuclear power station just down the coast from the university where we were staying – it was a charming place and where I fell out with a good friend Stu.****

Stu and I had sung together for a few years in the choir but on tour we really didn’t like each other and things came to head there – he thought I was a twat – I probably was in those days – and he moped around for most of the tour as he was missing his girlfriend and the final straw for me was when we went to a pizzeria in Cambridge Massachusetts and as he didn’t like pizza he got angry about the fact that we’d gone to a pizzeria he tucked into a cardboard placemat instead. We got to Bridgewater and I called him a sheep for hanging around with Dave and his new girlfriend Rachel all the time and he gave as good as he got, saying that the other soloists were better than me***** and that he really didn’t want to be on tour. That was the last time we ever spoke to each other – I know he’s friends with a couple of people from those days on Facebook and I also know from those mutual friends that he can be very touchy about those days even 22 years on.

That tour in 1991 was the end of my golden period in SGYC – I stayed in the choir for another year by which time I’d been accepted to study at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, new younger people had joined the choir who I didn’t like, cocky little things they were who didn’t actually seem to want to sing and so in September 1992 I left to focus on singing in college and so ended one of the happiest times of my life.

Next time in My Life As a Singer: Stuttgart or Bust! A whole blog about the St Cyres School tour to Stuttgart in February 1991 – ten days, two concerts, £100 and a driver called Roger. It’ll be better than it sounds and Generalfeldmarschall Rommel’s son finally serves us that veal.

* Favouritism there from the conductor who had known us since we were little boys

**September 1994 in the canteen at the (Royal) Welsh College of Music and Drama, I loved her from afar for eighteen months and stalked her into submission before she agreed to go out with me and reader, I married her!

*** And a bloody good one at that.

**** On the US tour I also fell out with Jon and with Dave – Dave and I normally fell out at least once on tour. Sorry for being such an arse sometimes back then.

***** Some were, others definitely not.

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.

The Land of my Father, Roger.

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“Rugby. Tom Jones. Male Voice Choirs. Shirley Bassey. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantisiliogogogch. Snowdonia. Prince of Wales. Anthony Hopkins. Daffodils. Sheep. Sheep Lovers. Coal. Slate Quarries. The Blaenau Ffestiniog Dinkey-Doo Miniature Railway.”

I am Welsh. No honestly I am – I cheer for Wales in the rugby and the football and laugh when England lose at anything so I must be Welsh of that there can be no doubt. The only thing sowing seeds of doubt in your mind might be the fact that I was born in Bristol and my mother was born in London and her parents born in Wigan and China.

“So you’re English!” I hear you cry – well I guess that if English nationality had any legal status then yes, I might be seen as being more English than Welsh and that I should be cheering my football team on to glorious failure at World Cup after World Cup – I mean at least England get to the World Cup finals – Wales? 1958 was the last time and (whisper it) we didn’t even qualify properly then – we got in through the back door via a special play off against Israel.

So am I Welsh then or not?

I am going to give two illustrations of why I consider myself to be Welsh, you may argue against them if you like but to be honest nothing will change how I feel inside, the joyful emotion I’ve felt when watching Wales beat England at The Arms Park, Wembley and Millennium Stadium, the total ecstasy felt hugging my Dad at the Millennium Stadium when we won the Grand Slam against France having felt nothing but love for my Dad when he gave me his ticket for the previous Grand Slam game against Ireland because he could only get one and he’d seen it all before and wanted to experience seeing Wales win a Grand Slam, drinking a two litre bottle of vodka with my friend Chris when the Welsh football team lost against Romania in 1993 and didn’t qualify for the World Cup in America – we’d all planned to drop out of college and go to follow Wales to the World Cup and it wasn’t going to happen.

Anyway I digress – here are my illustrations…

1) Windsor Davies.

If you asked somebody name a famous Welsh actor then they will probably go for Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins or Michael Sheen but come on the Welshest of all Welsh actors is Windsor Davies – nobody could be more Welsh, from It’ Ain’t Half Hot Man, through Grand Slam and onto the comedy masterpiece that was Never the Twain, Davies was Wales personified and is loved for it. And where was this Welsh behemoth born? West Ham.

Windsor Davies – still Welsh.

2) My Grandmother

My Mum’s mother was born in China in the early 20th century and the story of how this came to be has always fascinated me. My great-grandparents were there as Methodist missionaries spreading the Word and my Aunt Joan can still speak Mandarin from her time out there! My Grandmother once told the tale about going to the US in the 1950s at the height of Cold War paranoia and she had a spot of trouble getting into the place due to her Chinese birth. This was despite the fact that China didn’t become Communist until nearly 50 years after she was born!!!

Elizabeth Walker – a proud Englishwoman until the day she died and she hated the fact that she had to move to Wales when she became too ill to live in her remote North Yorkshire village. My sister and I thought it was hilarious especially as her mother had been born in Wales – hurrah!

When I was in primary school – Y Bont Faen Primary School, Cowbridge, 1976-1983 –  I have no idea about the amount of times that we’d have this debate about nationality and I genuinely think that it has scarred me to this day. I had to fight (sometimes literally even though I’m a lover, not a fighter) for my nationality to be accepted:

“You can’t be Welsh, you were born in England so you’re English.”

“But my Dad’s Welsh and I support Wales and Swansea.”

“You support Swansea?!? You Jack bastard.”

Oh yes, that was the other thing, I lived in or near Cardiff until I was thirty and much as I love the place, my Dad’s family are from Swansea so along with a lifelong love of Joe’s ice cream I support the Whites and will be Jack ‘til I die. Do you have any idea how difficult this made my life? I found out last year – this is over twenty years since I left secondary school* in Cardiff – that one of my friends there also supported Swansea City – he never told me in our time together at school as he was so afraid of what might happen to him should the news leak out.

Anyway I was wondering about whether or not these conversations still take place in the Welsh primary schools of today, do children born in Welsh hospitals still dismiss the nationality of their classmates who for whatever reason were born to Welsh parents living in England but who then felt the hiraeth calling and moved back to Wales? I’ve heard possibly apocryphal stories of mums to be leaping on trains from Newcastle Upon Tyne to Cardiff to ensure that their first child was born in Wales – are any of these tales true?

So in summary – I’ve argued this poorly and so I’ll let this song speak for how I feel if you think I’m not Welsh.

*Just for your information we went to a Church school – the mighty Bishop of Llandaff Church in Wales High School – we spit on Cantonian.