I have saved the best one until last. I grew up in North Wales, and while I love Welsh writers, many of them write about the valleys, about the coast, about the South. That’s not my Wales. I grew up and into my adult years in the villages of Ruabon and Llangollen and this poem was written about those experiences. The Kelly from ‘Kelly Sings’ is Kelly Jones, lead singer of the Stereophonics, who played in Llangollen while I was in sixth form and were instrumental in the popular rise of Welsh rock music. I can’t listen to his songs, in particular the first album ‘Word Gets Around’, without mentally going back to those days. This poem reflects how I feel and the experiences that echo through my head when I hear those songs.
As his vocals stumble over rough guitars, laced with gossip
I’m feel like I’m back walking the red brick streets in the dark,
Breathing deep the coal smoke.
The ash turns from thick warmth into bitterness
As it mixes with the grey drizzle.
My bus rumbles on like a baby dragon,
Roaring and belching smoke,
Snaking up into the village high streets
Bearing ladies with string bags, bundled into anoraks,
Purchased from the markets ten years since
But good for ten more at least.
I head towards the pubs where their husbands sit in corners,
Welsh bitter slopping onto the dominos.
Grey smoke curles into their eyebrows,
Mustaches twitch over dry silent lips.
At their feet, old collies stretch and wheek,
Knowing that Ivor will be in with the disco soon.
The history of Wales heads home for tea
While its future plasters itself in gel and lipstick,
Hair slicked into spikes or scooped into scrunchies.
They totter and slouch into their elders’ seats,
To order bottles and flick peanuts,
Dancing to five whirling lights on the carpet,
Shouting to friends last seen in the classroom,
Scant hours hence and a world away.
His tragic lament soars over plucked notes
Throbing behind regular base drum beats.
The memory of old cassettes and walkmans stirs deep,
Recalling recordings repeated with each passing fad.
They groaned and croaked out Welsh rock,
Booming through tinny headphones, cranked loud.
The quad lay overgrown,
Littered with illicit butts and sweet wrappers.
The ghosts of the old grammar envied us our freedom,
They skulked in the shadows around the worn paths,
Under wrecked covers and past barred windows.
We lay on the grass their feet were forbidden to touch.
The red bricks have been smashed assunder since,
Replaced by new houses, failing in an old style,
Priced way beyond any former pupil’s means.
The fusileer memorials were carefully removed
But nobody cares where they are now.
Rumbling discontent into beats like footsteps, sharp across flat slabs.
Lamenting a youth lost without choice,
While we ached to be shed of ours.
We gurgled with energy, bubbling into our accents,
Watching our musicians conquer the world.
We were channeling the river, racing over rocks,
Laughing and dodging the jagged sharps
Before stalling in pools when the water level dropped.
Marooned in worn rock holes
We listened as all of the promise trickled away.
Jumping from the bridge into the dark pool was once a rush,
Before it became a one way trip.
As the chords thrum back and forth,
Gravel rattles in his voice while the snare drum ticks on.
The bar emerges from the smoke once more,
Sweating wood under young palms,
Silver changing hands for Smirnoff and Snakebite.
Each night followed the pattern of the last,
Capturing our sense of belonging.
The cigarette grooves deepened in the porcelain,
Dirty, rusty brown stains in the off white fittings.
The cold tap glugged and dribbled
While the sticky floor clutched at my soles.
The worn red carpet wore the Guiness flecks,
As someone dropped minstrels into their pint
To sweeten the stout.
The juke box whirred into life,
Spitting out Cerys and the Manics,
Along with a dose of good old Tom.
Choruses raised in a sea of red rugby shirts,
Cursing in English, their Welsh long lost to them
They chanted to the land of their fathers,
Not knowing what they sang.
Another disc whirred and clunked
And Kelly sang…
Just as he sings into my memory,
Echoing a sea of red pride,
Lamented and remembered,
Not feeling so lost now in a white flag,
Or trapped into a red cross.
Kelly sings to me,
And every time a dragon awakens and roars.