To A Grieving Friend

09/11/2016

How can I grasp this
Beyond the obvious?
What to say, besides “I’m sorry”?

How do I unglue
My labyrinthed tongue and
Exceed the usual worn out words?

I could try the words of others:
Frye, Rosetti, Dylan Thomas,
Perhaps they can say it better than I.

Yes, I’ll offer their words instead.
And I’ll offer my shoulder,
My arms or perhaps just my ears,

Tuned and ready to listen.

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Lost Branch Lines: The North Pembrokeshire Line

08/09/2016

Travel by train today on the West Wales line from Swansea, and after Whitland you will see the high ground of the Prescelli mountains to the north. Even today this is a thinly populated area, with little or no industry. Not the most likely place for a railway, you would think, but if you keep your eyes peeled after the train leaves Clunderwen, after a mile or so an overgrown embankment can be seen heading away from the main line towards the mountains.

This was the former North Pembrokeshire branch to Goodwick, which started life as the Maenclochog Railway, named after the largest settlement in the area. The initial impetus for the line came from the Cropper family who owned the slate quarries at Rosebush, the only industry in the area. The South Wales Railway had opened in the 1850s, and the closest point to the quarries was at Clunderwen. Edward Cropper obtained powers to build a line from Rosebush to the SWR (by this time owned by the GWR) and the GWR agreed to allow his trains access to Clunderwen for an annual rent of £500. Construction of the line began in 1873, and it took three years for the eight-mile route thanks to the difficult terrain. After running parallel with the GWR for a mile, it swung away northwards, falling briefly. After a cutting at Beag, the line then began to climb with increasing severity, culminating in a two-mile stretch at 1:27. It then curved west through a 100 yard tunnel and passed Maenclochog. A further steep climb (which included a stretch at 1:30) took it to Rosebush and the quarries.

The line was officially opened on 19 September 1876, and four passenger trains each way were run, which were allowed 40 minutes to make the climb from Clunderwen (and five minutes less going back down!) Stations were opened at Llanycefn, Maenclochog and Rosebush, and in the first two years, the line was profitable. Extension of the line towards Fishguard was also talked about, and the Rosebush and Fishguard Railway was established to build it. Construction began in 1879, but the company was dogged by financial problems and progress was very slow: several times it had to petition parliament for more time.

By this time, things were not going well at the MR. Even in the early years, the high fee charged by the GWR for the use of Clunderwen wiped out most of the profits, and by 1881, the line was losing money. The company built a hotel at Rosebush and attempted to promote the area as a resort, largely without success. The Rosebush quarries were also in decline, and as the GWR was the only outlet, the company’s position was bleak. The last trains therefore ran on 31 December 1882 and the line closed.

The RFR meanwhile, was still struggling to build its line to Fishguard. After a further petition to parliament for more time, it changed its name to the North Pembrokeshire and Fishguard Railway. Progress was still slow however, and only a mile or so of line had been built. Work finally got underway again in 1892 at the same time as Joseph Rowlands and John Cartland, a solicitor and an industrialist from Birmingham, took a controlling interest in the company. They had ambitious plans to develop Fishguard as port for a rival sea route to Ireland. Rowlands oversaw the completion of the line as far as Letterston and the purchase of the MR, and passenger trains started on 11 April 1895.

After the junction with the MR, the new line curved away from Rosebush on a falling gradient through Puncheston. It continued to fall for the next four miles to Letterston, which was the line’s principal station. The line beyond here, to Goodwick, took a further four years to complete. From Letterston, this fell at 1:50 to what later became Letterston Junction, which was followed by a further fall at the same gradient for two miles, Manorowen bank. The line opened in July 1899, by which time the company had been taken over by the GWR, who had plans of their own for Fishguard. After this, the line settled into a sleepy branch line existence, with only two or three passenger and goods trains a day. The severe gradients always made it hard to work, and it was soon eclipsed by the new GWR line to Fishguard.

In 1916 the line was closed between Maenclochog and Letterston so that the track could be sent to France for use by the military. After the war, it took the GWR until 1923 to reopen the line throughout. It was not to last, however. Despite several halts being opened in the 1920s, the passenger services were withdrawn in October 1937. The line remained open for a single goods train a day. This left Goodwick mid morning and was allowed a leisurely four hours to reach Clunderwen. If required, the loco would run back to Maenclochog to work a parcels train to Clunderwen, though on this line parcels meant rabbits!

During World War II the line was again partially closed, this time to allow the air force to use it for target practice: several locos were painted white and shot at while the tunnel was also bombed. The remaining train was finally withdrawn in 1949 and the track between Letterston and Clunderwen was lifted in 1952. Goods trains continued to serve Letterston, but in March 1965 these too were withdrawn and the track was soon lifted.

What remains of the line today? The first two miles or so out of Fishguard up to Letterston Junction are still in use by Arriva Trains Wales to Fishguard Harbour. The trackbed is clearly marked on OS maps but I believe parts of it south of Maenclochog are now marshy. Rosebush station platform still exists and is now in a pub garden. The owners have created a display on the platform and the pub contains some railway memorabilia (see http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/)

A more surprising survivor is one of the original MR locos, an 0-6-0 saddle tank, Margaret, (named after Edward Cropper’s wife). Although quickly replaced when the GWR took over, the loco not only survives but is still in Pembrokeshire at the Scolton Manor museum a few miles from Haverfordwest.

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Crossing The Usk

05/06/2016

Crossing the Usk, a slow flow of mud,
Water rippling in the rain,
I’m going home, the train engine
Roars louder as it climbs through Caerleon.
Is it home? It feels alien now,
Familiar, but not home,
Not that cosy, sad, untidy place
Of long known stuff and clutter
To return to in stormy weather.
Sure, the room’s the same,
The stuff the same, even the clutter,
But somehow home no longer.
Have the recent storms blown it down?
When did it cease to be safe?
I cannot answer that, and
Should the train stop
And retrace its route,
I would not be sorry
(Though what would I tell the boss
When I didn’t show up for work tomorrow?)
Return to a place that, as a youngster,
I couldn’t wait to flee.
Nantyderry, and the sky clears,
A hint of rainbow
Between grey cumulus.
The old dears opposite crack open the wine,
Hey, pour me a glass, perhaps
That will clear the fog,
Light the way to answers.
Fix headphones
(They don’t like it up ‘em you know)
Shut out the boring conversations,
Thud of music, annoying ringtones.
Abergavenny, and rain returns
With renewed roaring violence
As more miles are eaten up,
Forever closer to the cluttered room
– Perhaps I should call it my cell –
Something to be avoided,
A reason to be discovered
But all I can see are question marks,
Thick, black and growing fatter by the minute,
Smiling the rictus grin of a madman.
Llanvihangel, the summit of the line,
And down the train races, faster
And faster, clouds smoking
Round the mountainsides,
I’d like to be among those empty hills.
Fields of yellow stubble
Catch the odd sunbeam to escape
Clouds’ grey grip, and briefly glow,
A field of gold, light that bathes me too.
Today and yesterday, to see again
Places known from years ago,
I felt happy (yes, happy, there
Of all places), no pain now,
The reason I was so quick to flee
Can’t hurt me any more.
And though I head back to certainty –
The flat, the clutter and daily routine –
It’s no longer cosy certainty.
I want that cosiness back,
Want the firm door slam
That shuts out the world –
No, just fuck off –
Dinmore, and at last the sun is free,
Glittering lake so bright
My eyes hurt, a sudden floodlight
Into a long shuttered room.
Let me keep this, all of it,
The rain, the clouds and muddy Usk,
Even the dead oak alone
In the field near Craven Arms,
Brittle fingers reaching skyward.
Let me reach skyward too, keep
This bright-gentle light around me,
Warm me when back amongst the clutter
And dust, that would dull the blade.
You can never leave yourself behind, but
This journey will still be here, and
I can make it whenever I want,
Without leaving the flat.

Written on a Cardiff – Crewe train, July 2006

Brexit: Grow Up and Stop Scaremongering.

23/05/2016

The main problem with the whole referendum “debate” is that both sides are resorting to scaremongering, distortion and outright lies. This is dishonest and dishonours the whole process. It’s far to serious and important and issue to be trivialised by such juvenile tactics.

If, as I suspect, we vote to remain “in”, it will because people have believed the scare stories and decided “better the devil you know” rather than at least trying to make an informed choice. I’ve done my best to do so, and have made up my mind as to how I’ll be voting.

A plague o’both houses.

I’m certainly no fan of Gove (quite the reverse!), but this is one of the few reasoned arguments I’ve seen from the Leave Camp:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-referendum-michael-goves-full-statement-on-why-he-is-backing-brexit-a6886221.html

This classic from Tony Benn:

Sargon of Akkad’s critique of Project Fear:

Boris’ Brexit Lies:

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/05/great-huckster-boris-johnson-s-reckless-distortions-history

Eleanor Rigby: Lonely or Loner?

02/05/2016

Richard Coles’ autobiography Fathomless Riches opens with a story of a priest he knows retiring to bed at Christmas with a bottle of vodka. This sad vignette put me in mind of Father McKenzie from The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby:

Father McKenzie writing the words
Of a sermon that no-one will hear
No-one comes near.

One of two characters in the song, the other being the eponymous Eleanor. Both alone, and not, the song tells us, in a good way, with its insistent refrain “ah look at all the lonely people.” We have Eleanor wandering through an empty church, clearing up after a wedding. Someone who “lives in a dream” and hides behind the brave face she shows to the world – described in the arresting image “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” We don’t know where she lives. When she goes home and bolts the door, what is the true face that emerges? Why does she go to the church? And there is Father McKenzie, living alone and darning his socks. As no-one hears his sermons (except Eleanor perhaps?) the church would seem to be little used.

The song’s killer punch is reserved for the last verse:

Eleanor Rigby died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came

What a piteously sad image. The only person present the officiating priest, Father McKenzie, who “wipes his hands as he walks from the grave”. The only survivor from the song, perhaps now lonelier than ever, returning to his solitary sermon writing and sock darning. Who will pick up the rice after weddings now?

Where do the lonely people come from, where do they all belong. The insistence in this refrain is perhaps too insistent. Loneliness is assumed, taken for granted. Eleanor may very well have been lonely, but she could also have been a loner. The put on face does suggest the presence of others and needing it to hide behind, but it also suggests a self-contained person, one that keeps its true self hidden and private. One that craves solitude and does not fear it. Or as Philip Larkin put it:

Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

(from Best Society)

The absence of mourners does not contradict this. The song’s storyteller has assumed things about her, on what seems at best to be a passing acquaintance. “Where do they all come from?” may be a rhetorical question, or even, if the pronunciation stresses are changed, a suggestion of distaste: there’s too many of them, where do they all come from?

“Where do they all belong?” is rather presumptuous, and follows easily from the earlier assumptions. They belong wherever they feel they belong, or perhaps don’t feel the need to belong at all.

Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but the inference drawn by the storyteller is a common one. And while it could be correct – Eleanor and Father McKenzie could indeed be lonely – ultimately, it turns on assumptions so is as likely to be wrong. “No man”, says John Donne “is an island/Entire of itself/Every man is a piece of the continent/A part of the main.” Oh really? Who says?

Spring

28/04/2016

The trees are surrendering
Their nakedness.
Blossom-heavy, ready to speak
Sheaves of green
And strew my path my wedding white.
In the grey damp of winter
I forget all this, can think
Only of short days, long nights
Scarf and glove wrapped;
As when in full leaf
Ringing with the birds’ full chorale
I’ll forget the undressed trees
And the grey silent air.
I’m pleased to stand here
In gentle amnesia.

Lies, Damned Lies and Spin – The EU Referendum

24/04/2016

I recently had my leaflet from the government giving their reasons why we should remain in the EU. Given that, despite Cameron’s big talk about renegotiation, he came home with next to nothing, I took the entire thing with several shovels of salt.

I haven’t really mind up my mind how I’m going to vote, but I am leaning towards leave. I’ve long believed the EU to be anti-democratic, and the arrogance with which they dealt with Italy and Greece recently has reinforced this. Treaties and laws are ignored when inconvenient, the European Court regularly extends its dictat and is allowed to get away with it. And that’s not to mention the erosion of national sovereignty, the corruption and waste.

I certainly don’t buy some of the remain arguments: social security, worker rights and environmental protection will be worse if we leave. Really? Being in hasn’t stopped the Tories savaging benefits, eroding rights, granting fracking licences and unbanning pesticides. And if TTIP becomes law (which the EU is negotiating in secret), you can expect what protections are left to vanish.

The main problem is getting a balanced view. I’ve read Daniel Hannon’s book Why Vote Leave, but as he’s a right wing Tory, he’s not someone I’d have any sympathy with politically. Even so, it’s a persuasive book, well written in restrained language without resorting to scare stories. I’d like to read left wing cases too, but have yet to find one. It’s disappointing that Corbyn has done a volte face on this, having been consistently eurosceptic up to now. In the unlikely event of his winning in 2020, if we remain in the EU, a lot of his platform (like renationalising the NHS) would be illegal under EU law.

So far – even though it requires me to be in such unsavoury company that I need to hold my nose – it’s looking likely I’ll vote leave.

Feminist Nonsense

02/02/2016

I read recently that a number of universities have introduced compulsory “consent lessons” for new students. For new male students. “Lessons” in what “consent” means when it comes to sex, as apparently we are living in a rape culture. Really? I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t the 1st of April.

It seems that the universities are now so enslaved by the extreme feminist paradigm that they are prepared to treat all men as potential rapists. It’s deeply insulting to the vast majority of men, not to mention sexist. Its blind stupidity is breathtaking.

One excuse I heard proffered for these so-called lessons is to target students who have come from single-sex faith schools. Well, a more eloquent argument against such schools I have yet to hear. Anyone with a brain knows that the three monotheisms treat sex and sexuality as depraved and dirty, so it’s no wonder that some people emerge from such an upbringing with a warped view of sex. But this is no excuse to tar every man with the same dirty brush. Fuck. Off.

I don’t doubt that the fight for women’s equality still has ground to cover, and that the struggle up to now has been a noble one which has rightly enjoyed successes. Modern feminists do their cause no good at all by indulging in extremism. They claim they are still oppressed yet refuse to support their sisters battling for equality in other cultures and countries where women really are suffering. In fact, they excuse such practices on the ground of cultural difference; to deny otherwise is apparently imperialist. I’ve another word for it: racist.

I admit it, I’m a man. And worse, a white heterosexual man. And I don’t need lectures from feminists in how to behave thank you so much. If I’d been going to university now, I would refuse to attend these “lessons” on principle.

Trump’s An Idiot, But Let Him Speak

10/12/2015

I see there’s a petition going round to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK because of his anti-Muslim views. I refuse to sign it.

I don’t agree with Trump and never will, but he’s entitled to his opinions and to express them, however repellent they are. That is what free speech is. Banning someone from speaking is wrong, it will give him spurious legitimacy. It’s also childish. Let him speak, then criticise him, debate, argue, show him up for the ignorant bigot he is.

Censorship is no answer to this. It’s yet another example of “free speech is OK, but”. No, there are no buts. Continue down this road and soon we won’t have free speech. It’s supposed to be one of the core western values. We should not circumscribe it so readily.

So Long, It Hasn’t Been Good To Know You

09/12/2015

The recent news of the departure Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s controversial chief executive John Van de Laarschot was very welcome and long overdue. It wasn’t a surprise: the council changed hands after the May 2015 elections and new leader Dave Conway was a frequent critic of Van de Laarschot while in opposition.

The departure was a costly one. After several weeks on fully paid gardening leave, he was given a Golden Fuck Off of almost a quarter of a million pounds. And this after a five year tenure that wreaked havoc on the council, ruining successful services and causing staff to leave in unprecedented numbers. This obscenely overpaid and arrogant little man should have been sent packing years ago – there were opportunities, but former leader Mohammed Pervez lacked the balls. Better late than never, I suppose, and good riddance to extremely bad rubbish. A pity it took so long and cost us so much.


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