Monday, April 04, 2011

Hidden Town

I recently took a bike ride exploring areas of Port Talbot; largely off the beaten and corroded tracks of a tearful town dying on its gangrenous feet.  I wanted to visit the dark areas where the population at large avoid as if they were part of an exclusion zone around a spent Soviet atomic plant.
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I traversed narrow back alleys, where sagging brickwork and burnt garage doors held each other up earnestly over discarded sofas and TV sets that were once considered luxury items.
Moving south, on the edges of the town I gravitated to an old deserted warehouse; a place I had long wished to visit to produce some suitably atmospheric and desolate shots to go with one of my suitably atmospheric and desolate albums.  This tired raped old shell of a structure sucked me into its myriad corridors and rooms, before spanning out into a huge space where shafts of sunlight spread like radioactive fingers in the asbestos dust disturbed by fleeing pigeons through roofing apertures. I inhaled an almost overwhelming scent of acetone. 

It was then that I came across numerous youths spray painting the empty plaster walls.  The iridescence ascended from rubble-strewn floors like sinewy limbs of  vibrant ivy holding up the swaying structures.
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They were mostly six-form metal skate-punks, and at a stroke of the aerosol bucked the media stereotype for graffiti artists.  These were no skunk-addled subway crazies or street hoods marking their turf;  but ordinary kids using their urban environment as a canvas.
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There appeared to be a delineation along class lines.  The obviously more prosperous lads with their backpacks teeming with large pallets of coloured paint enveloped themselves in giant triptychs of detail and complexity, impervious to anything but the concept;  whereas the lesser proletariat contented themselves with a small handful of primary spray, marking simplistic tags in the available space.  There appeared to be an unwritten understanding that nobody shits in another artist’s nest.  None of them appeared to notice or resent my presence; a ghostly visitor to an art project.
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Graffiti artists (and artists they most certainly are) get a filthy press; pilloried as vandals and wanton destroyers.  Yet the same people who vent such spleen on these kids blithely tolerate the nauseating bilge on billboards from Sky or Coca Cola.  None of them bats an eyelid when the airbrushed horror of David Cameron promises to save the NHS.  This town has choked its residents for decades, given them cancer, smashed their hopes, destroyed the very aesthetic and culture of their existence.   If only people could comprehend the level of effort, commitment and talent that goes into such a sub-genre of art, one assumes attitudes would change.  Don’t hold your breath.

For me, the discovery of such concepts are hugely enlightening, and every bit as (if not more than) exciting as a visit to the Tate or indeed some stuffy exhibition of Neolithic cave paintings.  The smell, the colour, the ideas and the narrative are of now, and should be cherished.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ground Zero

I meandered across from my Swansea Bay office to view the demolition of the Vetch Field, which for the less-informed is the abandoned former home of my cherished Swansea City FC.  This cathedral for the crushed optimist; this gathering place for the aspirant-cynic; a quiescent sentinel to penury yielding its soft concrete underbelly to giant excavators ripping away remorselessly at its bleeding soul like fireants in a termite mound.
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I was not alone in my curiosity and desire for a last nostalgic glimpse.  Several middle-aged men appeared singly and sporadically at the open North Bank gates accessed by the demolition crew, craning and elevating on tip-toes for a final look at the razing like paparazzi at a celeb autopsy.  One could detect the sort of moistening of eyes and grating-throatiness associated exclusively with Welsh men at a funeral. 

It then dawned on me: while events pass us by like vapour, it is structure that frames our existence and retrieval.  To crudely paraphrase:  if you build it, they will come …if you dismantle it, they will cry.  Melancholy oozing from the sepia-stained back pages of memory and time.  It took approximately three minutes for this wistful fog to clear from my eyes with the sight of several scampering rats, followed by a famine-riddled feline.

And let us approach this vision and sip a tonic of realism.  Surveying the fingers of buckled corrosion reaching out through smashed concrete terracing, it’s quite clear that Vetch Field was a shit hole.  All that bleary-cheeked yearning for a return to the stadium cannot mask memories of broken glass cemented onto perimeters, asbestos sheeting hanging from the Centre Stand flanks like the rotten dermis of a homeless leper; rusting barbed wire strangling the walls like knotweed; weeds growing out of turnstiles and crumbling plateaux yawning with deep canyons that could disappear children.
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Observing the North Bank’s diminishing piss-reeking silhouette against the winter gloom, it could almost be a Balkan concentration camp or an abandoned site for wartime chemical experimentation;  a testament to how much the owners of the club throughout the years actually cared for the fans, allowing them to fill their guts with mechanical slurry, wade shin-deep in overflowing urine and be herded like livestock into an enclosure that could have become their tombs.

It was refuge for the bigot; a haven for the profane; a recourse for those who wished to bathe in the fumes of danger.  Not at any stretch a safehouse for families, women and minorities wishing to support their team untethered by fears of the violent stereotypes haunting its confines.

I had staggering memories at the Vetch Field that wrought my childhood, adulthood and as a parent taking my son every week and watching his wonderment at the developing soap opera that was Swansea City FC.  Those days will travel through my soul as the happiest times with my boy; and with every day that he is not here with me adds flavour and light to those priceless memories in times of gloom.  The Vetch Field gave this to me, and my love for it will be locked in a frozen capsule of joyous reminiscence.

But let us not be blinded by nostalgia.  How many of us have fond recollections of a kindly grandpa who regaled us with his benignity and colourful stories that filled our young imaginations? …only for the maggots of the ages to dine on his brain, leaving an embittered impossible man.  Would we aspire to rekindle those halcyon days that had long since died?  Would we wish to stand in dog shit because of the pet we loved as a child? 
Let it die in peace and dignity.  Long live Liberty.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Down the Tubes

Now that Jamie Oliver has been sent packing with his hostess trolley full of macrobiotic earnestness from US schools content to pack the pie-holes of the nation’s waddling blimps; the story brought back an olfactory whiff of rancid memories from my own days in state primary school. In this case the life-changing lunch villain was liver and mash This brown lump of organic compound came in square shapes replete with protruding tubes like some hideous gravy-covered road kill from a Quatermass movie. The dinner ladies, no doubt knowing a thing or two about presentation, slapped it onto our plates like a karate auctioneer.
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The real cuisine trauma though was reserved for the ‘scraping bowl’; a large metal receptacle into which we would dispose our uneaten food in the knowledge that local pig farms could share in the misery. The sight of a 3 foot high tottering tower of liver haunts my taste buds to this day, to the extent that any attempt to serve me dishes consisting of organs would have to come as part of a package including a tranquiliser dart and three months of post-traumatic counselling.

But what is it about school dinners that provoke a sense of communal revulsion? Was it the thought of Mr Hedges, the maths teacher reaching first for the custard jug -only for the sight of an erroneous nasal clipping dropping into the yellow gloop? Was it the realisation that at some stage a pea with the outer strata of an asteroid would hit the fat girl tucking into her flame-seared gypsy tart? Was it the hirsute dinner ladies serving a rehabilitative programme decreed by the Nuremburg trials? Who cares?  School dinners were a rite of passage alongside dropping a pen and looking up Miss Evans’ skirt; putting dogshit in the caretaker’s mop bucket and stapling the posh kids’ duffel coats to the desk. It’s what made us what we are in this country today: bitter, hopeless empty souls gazing out a window of despair as the clouds of hopelessness drift by, dripping tears of lost ambition. Turkey twizzlers? Kids today don’t know they’re born, etc….