Sunday, 14 November 2010

Strange Times in the Steam Room

I love sitting in the steam room of my local gym at the end of a workout or swim, particularly as the temperature drops outdoors and winter begins to weave its way into our weather system. Ten minutes of tropical heat defrosts and rejuvenates, allowing me to imagine I’m in warmer climes or at least removes the veil of blue dancing across my skin. This time is the summit of my exercise session, when I can enjoy a feeling of achievement and totally unwind. 

Sometimes relaxation is difficult however.  Not because I’m mentally or physically in the wrong place to chill out. Because steroid enhanced, shiny, fake-tanned, sometimes hairy menbeasts with an excess of testosterone are in the wrong place to allow me to relax – they’re in the steam room too, damn them.

I can cope with a ‘roider if they adhere to the unwritten rules of steam room conduct. These rules are: be still and be quiet. It’s common sense. There are benches to sit on and there’s steam to enjoy. Perhaps I’m unimaginative but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do anything other than sit and enjoy. But ahhh those creative ‘roiders explore a whole new world of usage.  I imagine the flexing of their drug inflated muscles and their peacock like strutting could surely be exhausted on the gym floor prior to steam room entry, but apparently not.

Like David Attenborough observing prosimians* in the wild, I look on, fascinated, at this uncultivated species in their natural habitat. They swagger. They exhale/heavy breathe. They posture outrageously to determine the alpha male of the pack and subsequent pecking order. The most dominant sit on top of the high backed tiled seats, heads skimming the ceiling, allowing them to survey the area below for potential prey or mates and feel important. They pace restlessly. They sit on the floor and stretch. Imagined yoga positions are adopted. Last week a manbeast pushed his face to within millimetres of the steam vent, perhaps to maximise steam absorption or perhaps to acquire a third degree burn, thus rendering him 'hard' and gaining promotion through the ranks of the steamy tropics. This week I witnessed a particularly loud and sweaty creature performing push ups, an act that no doubt gained him kudos aplenty. They are strange times indeed in the steam room. I occasionally manage relaxation, usually early morning before the ‘roiders rise, but truthfully I'd miss their antics if they weren’t around. I might contact Sir David and propose a six part series. 

*The most primitive of all the primates.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Responsibility of Youth

I've written about the reasons behind my move from Hirwaun to Cardiff, the calling beckoning me from mountain enclosed valley village to capital city. My experience won't come as a shock to anyone with similarly itchy feet, a craving for continual culture and a quest for a quicker pace of activity. What surprised me about my shift in location was the support I received from (to be honest) those I least expected to.

As I packed the last moveable possessions into my car - so that's everything but the shed and actual house - the removal van was already rumbling toward Riverside, where a new flat and new phase of my life awaited. I just needed to explain a few last details to my tenant, hand over my front door keys of five years, and say goodbye to a couple of neighbours. I wasn't looking forward to the neighbours bit. I anticipated lots of probing questions and disapproving 'tuts' and 'muns' at my disloyal fleeing of the hills.

The first I went to visit had been my favourite during the Station Road residency. A couple, they always had time to chat, wave hello, look after an assortment of internet purchases which arrived whilst I was at work, help carry heavy white goods to my car, and send me Christmas cards. Pretty much all the qualities I like in a neighbour. The husband answered the door in response to my knock. I explained I would be moving to Cardiff, and renting out my house. He was verbally encouraging, but cast his eyes down to the ground.

"We've had a bit of bad news", he said, his gaze still fixed to the floor. "She's not very well."

His wife appeared behind him, looking frail and gaunt. He briefly relayed our conversation so far, omitting the part about her illness. "Best of luck love", she said with a tired smile. "I've got to go and sit down now."

I turned back to her husband, a tall, sturdily framed man. He stepped out of the house and gently closed the front door behind him. "It's cancer", he whispered. "There's nothing they can do." I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. I’m sure the sensation at the pit of his was far worse. He extended his arms and wrapped them around me in a bear hug. Although friendly, he'd never so much as shaken my hand previously, but his action seemed surreally apt. My innards lurched again as I realised this had become a final farewell, a last goodbye on behalf of his wife.

"Enjoy yourself love, you're doing the right thing. You just make sure you enjoy yourself."

The words were simple but I knew his meaning was deeper. It appeared life was being handed to me across the doorstep. I felt its weight, like one of the heavy internet parcels he'd passed to me so many times; the contents of this not provoking my usual delivery based excitement, but a heavy heart. A click cut through the silence as my former neighbour retreated back into the house, carefully pushing the door closed, sealing out the world, and, it seemed, a chapter of my life.

My second visit was to an elderly lady who lived directly opposite me. I’ve written about her before, she was (and probably still is) serial spy of the street. Her eyes used to be upon me as I got into my car each morning, and upon meeting them she would scurry to arrange a picture frame or adjust curtains. I was always positive I wasn't the subject of fascination, that there was no intrigue as to the person I am, what makes me unique and makes up my everyday life. It's just a small street, in a small place, where many inhabitants live small lives in the sense their footfall, their mileage travelled, is minimal. Some rarely leave the village. I thought this lady was part of the tiny town club, and expected a reaction to match upon hearing my news. Instead, she described a life lost, relating my move to her own regrets; a longing for a different destination.

Lady X, as I’ll refer to her for this piece, married at a young age and, sadly, her husband died soon afterwards. She subsequently raised her three children alone whilst caring for her ill mother. She attributes her anguish to a failure to pursue her own interests, her disappointment at the death of her personal life. Far from chastising or condemning me for my plans, Lady X’s response was the reverse of my expectation. I received congratulations.

“Well done love, you’re doing the right thing. You’ve got to do these things whilst you’re still young or you’ll have regrets like me. I hope it works out for you.”

That totalled two confirmations I was doing the right thing from, as I mentioned earlier, the people I least expected to show encouragement. The people I associated with the mountains closing in on me, the people who produce Street Soap Opera Live.

I didn’t solely receive support however. More importantly and inspirationally I felt I was awarded life. Like an Olympic relay race, I was passed not one but two batons to propel forward. Yes, I was already living - and not just existing, but living - seeking excitement, searching out meaning, attempting to achieve fulfilment, asking questions. Even so, an extra thrust in the right direction can never be a bad thing; regardless of existing fulfilment or motivational levels we all have plenty of room for improvement, self-development, and a reminder of our direction. I received that tenfold as my soon to be ex-neighbours revealed their regrets and handed me their hope.

Heartbreakingly, crushingly, one life would soon be ending, and as a result I felt very aware of my comparative health, my relative youth. I felt a responsibility to heed the words of my neighbours, to learn the lesson of disappointment and to cherish existence, such is its fleeting nature. A DIY philosophy for life began to form – that there is a responsibility in youth* to follow our hearts and passions whilst we are still lucky enough to have the time and opportunity. Whilst we have the time and opportunity, we need to eliminate the possibility of future regret as much as possible. I hope I don’t sound like a self-help book here. I'm not attempting to lecture, or admonish anybody else for their life choices, I'm merely reflecting a happening. That day is one I will always remember and I can’t help draw meaning from the experience. Each time I think life is difficult or I’m feeling a little direction-less, I look back to that day, think of the two lives I encountered, the messages they conveyed, and am reminded I have the responsibility of youth to fulfil.


* I'm a very youthful thirty year old okay?!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Ralph the Police Witch

 My dad, Ralph, is a Police Witch. That's not his official title, rather one I've appointed him.* The Collins English Dictionary website defines witch as follows:



Ralph is not a woman. He is not evil nor does he practice black magic. He is not wicked or ugly. In fact, one of my previous work colleagues told me she fancied him, and that he has a 'lovely aura' which I find sort of disturbing. She also believed herself to be a white witch. I see some sort of witch-related pattern forming.
  
My portrayal of him as a witch stems from his magic powers. He sees into the future. I call him a Police Witch as his visions are road safety or law and order related. And he is a retired policeman.

Delivered via text as if a subscribed-to-service, I receive sparsely written messages on a daily basis - usually early morning - presenting warning based predictions for the day.


"Watch the roads. The sun'll be low in the sky." (It's sunny out when I get this message.)


"Watch the roads. They'll be wet." (Usually raining.)


"There are new traffic wardens operating in Cardiff. Watch you don't get booked." (I really did narrowly escape this fate about two hours later, at the hands and ticket machines of the purple clad vehicle vultures.)


"Watch the roads. They'll be slippery." (Usually snowing.)


"Watch the roads. They'll be dark." (Night-time.)


You get the picture. He was thinking about setting up his own business recently. I am sure that a Ralph the Police Witch website would be a roaring success. In exchange for a fee, he could distribute his prophecies on-line, as well as via text, e-mail or twitter feed. In fact, I'll start some early market research. If you'd sign up to Police Witch tweets, please let me know.


Take a look into the skies of South Wales tonight, and you might catch a glimpse of my dad, scanning the streets on a broomstick with his walkie-talkie in hand, forming tomorrow's forecasts.



 Sort of without telling him.


Friday, 15 October 2010

Thank you!

I won runner up place at the Wales Blog Awards last night, in the 'best writing on a blog' category. I am  (quietly!) very pleased to have won the runner up place in this particular category. I love writing. Acknowledgement through the blog awards has given me a boost, encouragement to continue on my writing path, which I'm very grateful for.

Congratulations to everyone who entered, was longlisted and shortlisted for, and won awards at the Wales Blog Awards. Hopefully we'll see each other again soon to re-confirm our real-ness outside of the online world. Until then, happy writing!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Cardiff: food allergy friendly city?

This article was written for and first appeared on Guardian Cardiff here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/cardiff/2010/oct/05/best-cardiff-restaurants-for-allergy-sufferers



I'll set the scene. It's a Friday evening and you're going for a meal with your friends. You're looking forward to a few drinks, delicious food and not having to do the dreaded washing up afterwards. Now imagine your most hated foodstuff. Seafood? Sprouts? Semolina? Upon arriving at the restaurant you discover all but two of the dishes consist of your gastronomic nemesis. However, your friends are pleased with what's on offer, so you politely opt for one of the palatable plates. How would you feel? Disappointed? Excluded? This is often the allergy sufferer's dining out experience. You're the odd one out. As a food lover and someone with a gluten intolerance and nut allergy, I know first hand how frustrating it can be to undertake the should-be simple task of eating out. After several particularly exasperating encounters I decided to delve a little deeper into the situation in Cardiff, and share my experiences on the good and bad of provision for allergy sufferers, in addition to restaurant policies.

When allergy sufferers struggle to find dining options, it isn't a case of not liking the food available. Quite often, I salivate over the thought of pesto pasta, of a risotto sprinkled with pine nuts, of sticky toffee puddings and chocolate fudge cake. Unless I fancy a dose of illness and a hospital visit in place of coffee however, it's just not worth it.

Food allergies, intolerances, are often misunderstood, dismissed as flights of fancy or fussiness, but they can cause serious health problems, and can even be fatal. Foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish, shellfish, dairy products and eggs can lead to anaphylaxis  People with ceoliac disease can have a range of health problems as a result of eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye - so that's bread, pasta, pastries, gravies and cake off the menu. Lactose intolerants cannot consume anything containing the main sugars found in milk - affecting breads, desserts, confectionary and sausages.

If diners know what ingredients are in the food served at restaurants, even if not their meal of choice, that's preferable to being served up a nasty surprise. Recently, I ordered a lunchtime mozzarella, tomato and avocado salad at Marks and Spencer, Culverhouse Cross. In spite of there being no indication on the menu, it was presented with a pesto dressing, which consists of ground pine nuts. Luckily, I recognised it's appearance, and was able to get my food replaced without the dressing, but somebody less aware, who had perhaps been living with their allergy for a shorter space of time, may have inadvertently eaten what is effectively their poison. Marks and Spencer's response to this occurrence was as follows:

The salad in question uses a pine nut and basil pesto. Although they’re known as a pine nut, these are botanically not a nut, but a seed and therefore do not require nut labelling as per legislation guidance.

Peanuts are also, technically, not nuts but legumes, yet still provoke a serious reaction if consumed, as would pine nuts. It seems a minimum legal responsibility is being adhered to rather than examining the actual effect of ingredients on potential customers. This approach is also indicated by the response to whether Marks and Spencer held a policy to list all ingredients potentially harmful on their menus:

In all of our Cafes we do have documents available on all products we sell; this details the allergens contained within the product and they are available from any member of staff for customers to review.

This list is a positive step, but it's existence should be advertised so that customers know they can ask for it. Although Marks and Spencer didn't fare well on this occasion with my nut allergy, they have just launched an impressive gluten free product range within their bakery, from which I can thoroughly recommend the chocolate and cherry cake! (Please send me more just to double check M&S!)

I asked the same questions on policy and provision for allergies of Wagamama, and found their awareness to be excellent. Their website lists the menu options which might be suitable for a range of intolerances. Waiting staff are trained about dishes and can advise allergy sufferers on what is suitable for them, and they are also happy to modify dishes where possible to cater for multiple needs.

La Tasca also offer advice on their website, from which customers can download a document with a complete breakdown of which of their foods contain allergens.  Best of all, their in-restaurant menus states which dishes are not allergy-friendly - this is the holy grail of dining out for me, so that what I see on the menu is what I get on the plate!

Another Cardiff hero of allergy friendly dining out is Chapter Arts Centre, for their lovely gluten free spaghetti, lots of gluten free cookies, and a menu clearly indicating allergens. I recommend The Pot Cafe in Roath  and Jaspers Tea Rooms in Llandaff for their amazing homemade gluten and nut free cakes and desserts - make sure you leave enough room for them! A gold star goes to Signor Valentino in Cardiff Bay, as despite having an unavoidably gluten filled menu - a given in an Italian restaurant - their staff are incredibly knowledgeable on the suitability of their dishes for allergy sufferers, they didn't make me feel awkward for asking and there was plenty to choose from - their swordfish is fantastic!


I've barely sampled the icing on the multi-layered (nut and gluten free?!) chocolate cake that is eating out in Cardiff. Here's to lots more time spent testing the city's culinary wares on behalf of allergy sufferers - a comprehensive list is needed. Of the places I did try, the overall situation is good. In order for the 'nasty surprises' to be eliminated, restaurants need to adopt policies such as La Tasca's whereby all dish ingredients are listed on the menu. Staff need to be trained, enabling them to advise customers on safe choices, and more options should be available. A big thank you to all those eateries already making a big effort to improve dining experiences for people with food intolerances. Entrepreneurs take note - there is a gap in the Cardiff market for a cafe or restaurant devoted to being food allergy friendly. If you establish this idea, please adopt me as your taster, and mention me on Dragon's Den!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Cafe Of Doom Scandal

Today, I really wanted to dine in a cave themed eatery with all the appeal of A Serbian film to a Disney fan, coupled with the gastronomic goodness of a donkey's toenail. "I know," I thought. "I'll eat at the Cafe of Doom."

The pitch black blanketed stairs beckoned to me like a hell bound death tunnel, the stale odour hanging in the stagnant air outside a mixture of cheap cigarettes and halitosis. As I advanced toward the entrance way, before I began to ascend the crustily carpeted steps, I noticed something different. The blackboard menu, usually awash with local culinary delicacies such as Roats Pots and Impudent Sassages, now resembled a Jackson Pollock style work of abstract expressionism. No exotic dishes proudly advertised, no tasty treats to tempt you in, just a smudgy scrawl.

I turned to the taxi driver leaning nonchalantly against his car nearby. His eyes and body language spoke silent volumes of his knowledge, his wisdom, as he arched one eyebrow slightly upon my approach, folded his arms and leant back a little further, one foot against his vehicle's wheel trim. His importance was brazenly broadcast through a blue-tooth headset looped around one ear, chunky mobile phone clipped to his belt in a bespoke leather pocket, Le Coq Sportif bum-bag holding plenty of ready coins to service the day's fares.  I had come to the right person for help.

"Do you know what's happening with the cafe?" I asked. "Is it open?"

"There's nothing I dunno about this place love", he said, puffing out his chest. Then dropping his cool and his eyebrow for a second, he beckoned me closer. His hand formed a conspiratorial cup next to his mouth, indicating invitation for a listening ear. I obliged with my right one. "Now you can't tell anyone about this, they don't want it getting out see 'cos it might affect trade. Christmas is coming up, and people travel from miles around to scoff some roats pots, and that's just the shoppers. The Christmas work parties are fully booked from July. Ronald has got 1400 Santa hats in boxes out the back. They were cheap like but it'd be a shame to waste 'em. Swear you won't say anything if I tell you what happened? On the bible, like?"

"Do you have a bible?" I asked.

"No, but you know what I mean. Would you swear on one if I had one?"

"Uh yes, sure."

And with that oath upon an imaginary copy of the bible, we had a deal, and my chauffeuring informant delivered the whole tale in hushed tones punctuated by sideways glances.

I had often looked skyward above the cafe entrance and wondered how many floors were in the building. Four, maybe five? And why the bars across a single window in the eaves? Now I had an answer to my idle wonderings.

I learnt that the proprietor Ronald's wife Mary, many years ago, suffered an addiction to the novels of the Bronte sisters, a rare disorder known as Bronte-itis. Initially, this was encouraged. Mary's mother Brenda had only ever expected to give birth to stupid children, such was the family tradition. When her youngest of nine began to devour literature other than Heat magazine upon being inspired by her English G.C.S.E. teacher, Brenda sprung into delighted action from a Jeremy Kyle and Jacob's Club induced coma (orange flavour) and 'phoned The Book Man* right away to order his entire classic collection. This happened to include several works by Jackie Collins, such was the Ton Pentre born Book Man's perception of classic prose, but no matter, they were saved for aunty Peg's Christmas present.

Mary relentlessly read her batch of novels through the day and night, only stopping to drink the odd cup of tea, barely uttering a word to her family and shunning television completely. Although unusual behaviour, Brenda's encouragement only turned to concern when her daughter's appetite waned. Adhering to another family tradition, Mary had always been a portly girl, pillows of flesh padding all potential bony edges. As the fat flattened out, Mary's mother began to keep a closer eye on her newly dilligent, slim-line daughter. She had been curious about the fate of the books Mary had bulldozed through. There was no bookshelf in the house, and they hadn't been lying around. One night, after Mary had, as usual, been holed up in her bedroom all day and again not eaten a thing, Brenda tip-toed up the stairs taking care to avoid the creaky floorboard, and edged her daughter's bedroom door open. She was confronted by a shocking sight.

Eyes wide and other-worldly, mouth foaming, Mary appeared to be in something of a frenzy. Sat on her bed, she was surrounded by hundreds of loose pages, their edges torn and frayed. Her cheeks bulged, protruding as a result of contents crammed in. Still viewing from her vantage point, mouth agape, Brenda saw her daughter crumple one of the strewn sheets, and push it past her teeth, biting down, chewing the paper into a pulp before swallowing. Her skin was flushed, hair dishevelled. Mary was eating her books.


Once safely at the local mental institution and a diagnosis of Bronte-itis reached, Mary's slow recovery began. Treatment involved extreme exposure to anti-literature, so a course of daytime TV and gossip magazines was administered. Sadly, this was the pre Big Brother and X-Factor era, treatments with their inclusion are now found to provoke a much faster recuperation. Achieving sustained good health involved indefinite avoidance of all book shops, period dramas and vintage clothes shops.

Decades on, Mary had embraced her opportunity for a fresh start. She resolutely avoided anything literature-like, and her time in hospital had suppressed all inclination toward the intelligent. She ate non-literature based lunches, married Ronald, together they bought the Cafe of Doom, and settled into their life in Valley suburbia. Calm had been restored until Mary learnt she was expecting the couple's first child. It was a turbulent pregnancy, with sickness throughout the nine months, sleepless nights, and constant kicking from the baby inside. Then, the time of the birth arrived. After an agonising labour, an ashen faced doctor approached Mary and Ronald at the hospital bed side.

"Mary, Ronald. There's no easy way to say this. I've been looking through your medical records. I didn't believe this could have happened until I saw the confirmation of your previous illness for myself. The Bronte-itis you suffered ten years ago...there's an infinitesimal chance that female sufferers bare children linked to the characters of the Bronte sisters....I'm afraid you've given birth to a Bertha, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester."

And so, the calm which had been restored to Mary's life was once more shattered, this time indefinitely so. She and Ronald would never experience the pleasures of regular parenthood, of dropping their child off at the school gates, of sports days and birthday parties and trips to the zoo. The doctor morosely explained to the weeping couple that the only way to care for a Bertha was to treat her in the same way as the character. This was her expectation, her reality, and although she wouldn't enjoy being locked up, any diversion from this would likely result in a mental collapse. She too had been born with Bronte-itis but as she was already mad, in her case it could be satiated. Thus, the attic of the Cafe of Doom was transformed into a cell. Bars were placed across the windows, it was sparsely furnished, and a meal hatch installed into the door through which regular bread, water and novels were delivered. Only the couple's closest friends knew about the existence of Bertha, the wider circle of acquaintances and gossips were told of a tragedy, and whilst technically true, the inferred implications meant no questions were ever asked.

Today had been a busy one in the cafe. Orders for impudent sassages were flying in, and hundreds of roats pots being prepared. As the aroma of the foods drifted up the staircase, around the corners and under the door of Bertha's cell, something within her stirred. The kitchen is situated on the second floor of the cafe, Bertha's room the fifth.  A strict rule insisting that the kitchen door be kept closed, the extractor fan switched on to top speed usually stopped that happening, but alas, today a new member of staff had begun, and forgotten these directives. 

The scent awoke something instinctive within Bertha, something neglected on lunches of literature and Tesco Value bread, filling her with a superhuman strength. She prised open her room door, tore down the flights of stairs, charged through the cafe sending customers, mobility scooters, tables, small dogs and plates crashing in all directions as she burst out of the entrance way. Upon seeing the blackboard menu adorned with forbidden delicacies she let out a rumbling roar and wiped them off vigorously, grabbing a stick of chalk and scrawling over the remaining smudges. Her cries of outrage could be heard as far as the outdoor market and Wilkinson's - naturally drawing a crowd of toothless women carrying striped bags of fruit and vegetables. It took Ronald, plus four of his meatiest male customers and one questionable female to lift a screaming, struggling Bertha back into the cafe, and then only because she was promised a stack of impudent sassages as reward. It took thirty seven additional roats pots before she was relaxed enough to be escorted back to her room, and upon arrival, this time shackled.

Thus, I discovered the fate of today's delicious Cafe of Doom fare and was forced to dine somewhere with a much more welcoming entrance way. Mary and Ronald would be closing for the rest of the week, attributing the incident to a sick cousin from London come to visit. The locals were already suspicious of (The) London so would easily write off such behaviour if associated with that place.

"Keep it schtum now mind love", winked the taxi driver, relishing the regaling of his tale but finally drawing to a close as a potential customer arrived. "Wouldn't want to miss out on our roats pots now would we?"


* There are multiple Book Men in the South Wales Valleys, but only ever referred to as a single person. The role of a Book Man is a full time one, which involves bringing a selection of books directly to the people of the valleys in exchange for cash, as a replacement for them visiting an actual shop. If you receive a book from a valleys gran or aunty for Christmas, it has probably been purchased from The Book Man. The chance of that is tripled if said book is authored by Dan Brown or Jackie Collins.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Prettily Paranormal Pop Melodies

Review -
Jakokoyak
Aerophlot

Aerophlot is the debut album by Jakokoyak, probably known by his mother as Rhys Edwards. Released by the independent Welsh label and music publisher Peski, he joins alternative music royalty such as Cate Le Bon, who provides vocals for the record - also involved is Dafydd Ieuan and Guto Pryce of SFA and The Peth. A follow up to critically acclaimed EPs, Aerophlot was inspired during the early 80s by travel memories and the Russian 'space race'.  Flying on the legendary Russian airline Aeroflot, Rhys was enveloped by the compelling symbolism of Russia’s space programme, and as he skimmed over the Siberian panorama, insights were impressed upon the future musician which would influence his creations in years to come. The sound is airy, light, dreamy, wistful and wonderful, with prettily paranormal pop melodies smattered by electronic bleeps, synth sounds and mechanical drums. Reminiscent of Air’s Moon Safari, it also sits comfortably alongside the more current M83, but should not be described as chill out music as it’s more intelligent and far from bland. It contains tales about an abandoned Ukrainian city (Prypiat), the first dog in space (Laika), Yuri Gagarin’s very own postcode (Moscow 705) and a private seaside in Sweden (Amine). The surreal, space focussed quirky subject matter sits perfectly alongside the softly supernatural sound.

The Spotify album link: Jakokoyak – Aerophlot

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Diolch yn Fawr

I'm thrilled to have been shortlisted for the Wales Blog Awards. But I can't shout about it. That wouldn't really be my style. So, I'm whispering here on my blog - as loud a thank you as an e-whisper will allow.

I've justified that people who are reading have found their way to this post single handedly (that's you - thank you!) I haven't tweeted, 'Hey, look at me, my blog has been shortlisted!' There's no Welsh blog related sheet of celebration knotted to a roundabout in Merthyr Tydfil, with an ink smudge spelling out my web page. I haven't even told my gran.*

Not that self-promotion is a bad thing. It's intrinsically linked to social media and furthering a creative career. I'm just not particularly good at it. I unpredictably blush bright red in social situations. Interview presentations flood me with the kind of fear most people reserve for swimming with piranhas or being forced to strip naked and perform Queen's greatest hits live at Wembley. Simple conversations with strangers can fill me with self-consciousness. This real-life shyness translates into a shyness about my e-world too. Which is why writing is a bit good. I can be myself, regardless of how red my cheeks grow!

I really am delighted that my blog has been nominated. If you're reading this and had an input into my shortlisting, thank you very much. Quietly, it means a lot to me.

*Granted, my gran didn't understand vegetarianism when I adopted that (temporarily) in the 1980s. She calls my degree a thingy. Evidence suggests she probably wouldn't know what a blog is. Still, she likes to hear my news, however unintelligible.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Plaid Blankets

Old Crow Medicine Show
September 21st 2010
The Glee Club, Cardiff Bay


Upon reading that Old Crow Medicine Show were a 'Nashville version of Mumford and Sons' my decision to attend the Glee Club on September 21st was instantly made.* The Southern quintet had the big shoes of my heroes to fill - and fill them they did, bringing appropriately balmy weather with them to Cardiff Bay along with their style of American roots music. Despite the school night, the gig played out like a Saturday shindig, with the instantly enigmatic five-some creating a great atmosphere from their initial step on stage.

Ketch Secor - fiddle, harmonica and banjo player extraordinaire, encouraged banter between the band and crowd, repeatedly expressing a love for Tesco Mackerel at forty nine pence a can - apparently country doesn't pay so well (y'all)! Willie Watson's perfect teeth gleamed like a toothpaste advert (or should I say commercial?) as he grinned continuously, belting out his trademark vocals to a mixture of old songs and new, some being tour tested for the first time. Each member was equally energetic in their performance, exuding infectious enthusiasm throughout.

The gig was played in two sets, lasting two and a half hours in total, allowing the audience to fully savour the band's debut in Wales. As the bows gradually warmed their strings, so warmed the checked shirt and cowboy boot clad crowd, hustling closer toward the stage to form a plaid blanket of bouncing bodies. When the fiddles became frenzied, folky mosh pits formed, with country dancing replacing hair flicking and crowd surfing. Favourite songs such as Wagon Wheel , Tear it Down and Take 'em Away elicited particularly strong responses, so much so the fans demanded an encore, achieved through fierce foot stomping!

Old Crow Medicine Show conjured up a feel of authentic Americana with beautiful bluegrass, poignant lyrics, Southern twangs and do-sí-do inducing melodies on this late Summer evening - magic musical moments indeed.


*Just three days after this gig, OCMS were to be found opening for Mumford and Sons on a mini-European tour. That's a dream gig scenario!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Sheet of Celebration

My impending birthday has led to thoughts of celebrations in the South Wales Valleys where I grew up. The highest honour which can be bestowed upon a celebrating inhabitant is to have their name and occasion spelt out in enormous, elaborate typography and strung high above their town or village for fellow residents to see and rejoice in. Perhaps you're imagining some gorgeous, glittery bunting, fantastic artwork, or even a flashing computerised billboard, Times Square style. Reverse those thoughts a little. Actually, reverse them a long way, and picture instead, a crumpled off white bed sheet scrawled on with misspellings in meandering permanent black marker, tied with string or stuck with duct tape to a road sign, bridge, or trees centring a roundabout, sometimes fluttering in the breeze, more often swirling wildly in a wintery squall, ink blurring and smudging with the moisture of precipitation. Happy Birthday! Happy Anniversary! Congratulations on passing your GCSES! Congratulations on winning the darts! Good luck for the X-Factor auditions, you're going to be the next Leon Jackson! (Yes, who?)

The sheet of celebration can also be effectively used as a tool of romance. Are you seeking a perfect method of proposal? What could be more romantic than declaring your undying love and desire to spend eternity with that special someone than committing such wishes to a Wilkinson's used bed sheet, under the watchful eyes and gossiping lips of the multiple Mrs Evans' and Mrs Jones' which exist in every valley pocket, as the bus chauffeurs them past en route to the supermarket for their weekly shop and cafe meal deal. Nothing, that's what. Starry champagne fuelled beach picnics or surprise European concerts crumble to cinders in the minds of prospective 'proposees' when confronted with the dream of their name in black marker on a roundabout.

Valley folklore recently released a story, via the overworked lips of said Mrs Evans' and Mrs Jones', that one subject of romantic desire reported her dedicated sheets of celebration to the police, such was their volume. Apparently, there is a fine line between the amount of sheets which can sweep a valley femme off her feet, and the amount which will lead her to have her beau arrested for stalking.

Use the sheet of celebration wisely. Treat with respect and it could enhance many an occasion which calls for commemoration and festivity. I can only hope that I am held in high enough esteem that I will see my name in lights, or rather, blurred permanent ink this Sunday when I turn 30. The sheet of romance I can only dream about. 

Monday, 6 September 2010

City Sounds

I love the sounds of the city. More precisely, the sounds of Cardiff. I'm in my fourth month of living here and alert to the surrounding new-ness. The place as a whole doesn't feel shiny new, as the roots of my social life have been embedded here for years. I've trodden the cobblestones of Womanby Street hopping over puddles betwixt bars, watched countless bands good and bad, celebrated over a decade worth of birthdays, and wandered the windy walk of the arcades on many a Saturday shopping afternoon. But my bed was in the valleys. So, before I could lay down my head after whichever activity I'd partaken in, a Hirwaun bound drive was necessary. A tedious, curse-littered, usually late-night, sometimes red-bull fuelled Hirwaun bound drive. There are worse things in the world, I know. But there are also better. Like the fact the long car journey has since been swapped for a very short walk; the terraced house a third floor flat. And the sounds of the valleys for the sounds of the city.

Mine is an old school valleys street. Where the homes were built for housing miners and iron workers in the 1800 -1900s and their proximity perfect for gossiping in the 2000s. I loved it and sometimes loathed it in parallel parts. My place was my own, decorated with care, had a mountain view and was two minutes walk from my family and/or the pub. It'd score well on Location, location, location. But sometimes it felt like those surrounding mountains were closing in, their grassy slopes slipping forward at night, seemingly shrinking the space available to move, to live, to be myself - slowly stifling. The street itself also seemed to whittle down in width each day, the neighbours' houses advancing, their eyes fixing closer to my windows. And oh, they watched. Eyes were upon me as I got into my car every morning, and on my meeting them the owner would scurry to arrange a picture frame or adjust curtains. As I mowed my lawn, I'd be observed from upstairs windows, and told the length of time it had been since my last grass cutting. Good of them to make a note. The most audacious neighbourly encounter occurred when a request was made for my apple tree. "Because you aren't much of a gardener, are you love, and them are the best apples I've ever tasted. Ever. In my life." Not a request for the fruits of my tree. A request for ownership of the whole thing, roots and all. It was not granted.

I'm positive I wasn't the subject of fascination, that there was no intrigue as to the person I am, what makes me unique and makes up my every day life. It's just a small street, in a small place, where many inhabitants live small lives in the sense their footfall, their mileage travelled, is minimal. Some rarely leave the village. So, those who exist within this small world are subject to scrutiny. The people within the hundred year old stone terraces provide the stimulus, a live soap opera for fellow residents with little else to do but watch.

There are plus points to living in a goldfish bowl. When I locked myself out late one night and stood shivering on the doorstep waiting for my dad to deliver a spare key, I received several offers of cups of tea and shelter from neighbours who emerged from their houses bearing help, obviously having viewed me on Street Soap Opera Live through their crystal clear HD windows. Early one morning I was attempting to bundle a tumble dryer into my car that I'd sold to a work colleague. I tried to hug it with both arms, heaving it millimetre sized distances along the pavement. I'd been struggling just seconds when three blokes, probably instructed by their wives, came rushing out and completed the job with ease. I can't fault the friendliness, the willingness to help. But at the same time, these acts were born from being observed, the need for help identified under a life size magnifying glass. I felt the squeeze of the small world. The valleys don't have to be restrictive. If you employ an open mind and seek your stimulus of choice elsewhere, it's possible to appreciate their beauty, the characters, the warmth, the history. That had been my strategy for a long time, but sometimes an open mind can only stretch so far before you feel the valley family inadvertently wrap their reptile-like, scaly lengths around you, constricting ideas and freedom of thought. I really felt the squeeze of the small world.

Surroundings are best listened to whilst in bed. As night time lays its blue-black blanket down, and tucks in the cities and villages and streets and hills, the sounds which exist outside of sleep become pronounced. There is a comfort in being enveloped in warm duvets and cwtshed amongst plump pillows within a quiet room, whilst the world still awake gently whirrs on outside. It's a pocket of safety and solitude whilst being connected by the sounds seeping through an open window. Lying in bed in Hirwaun, I'd hear the voices so familiar. The voice which asked for my apple tree as if asking for the traditional neighbourly favour of a cup of sugar. There'd be the fleeting blast of a 200 bpm dance track escaping from the tarted up Citroen Saxo of a boy racer, squealing tyres indicating departure after depositing his girlfriend next door. Inebriated men stumbled home from the pub, half-heartedly fumbling with keys before loudly rapping front doors, receiving sharp words from their wives whilst being ushered inside. Each sound was identifiable to an owner, linked to their image and stories and an entire history I couldn't help being aware of.

Riverside is different. My street is wide and the buildings tall. There are terraces and blocks of flats and terraces split into blocks of flats. There is a Muslim school and mosque on one side of the street, and Bangladeshi Centre on the other. It is punctuated by hostels and b&bs and guesthouses. It's en route to town, Bute Park and Canton, the River Taff and Riverside Market. Tens, maybe hundreds of people live in this street and hundreds, maybe thousands pass through. It would be virtually impossible to pinpoint a sound to an individual, unless they had an exploding car or spoke only with the aid of a megaphone. It is immediately bordered by water, not mountains. There is a sense of the wider city and suburbs beyond. It is moving with a moving people, who, at least on the surface, have interests outside of what their windows expose.

I now explore the city as a resident rather than a guest, and I absorb it. I feel the energies and histories and souls of the Cardiffians gone by; and the stories and passions and secrets and longings and evils and regrets of the contemporaries. I feel like a fragment of the place, like the tiniest jigsaw piece imaginable. The impact of my absence would be infinitesimal, but I feel I belong. As I lie in bed at night, a hush settled upon the flat, windows ajar and wooden blinds pulled closed, I hear a distant hum of late night traffic on rain slicked roads, interposed by the boisterous pull of the train as its horn accents its passing through the city. Rain is glugged greedily by flooded drains, joining fat rain drops to make a watery pavement percussion, the beat becoming less pronounced as puddles swell and cushion the rainfall. A mishmash of accents and languages join in conversations throughout the night, at 12.30, 2, 4, 5am. The Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, calls out a summons for Fard Salah. Sirens and clock chimes are a background soundtrack. The hums of Riverside are anonymous, they reflect diversity. My street is 24 hour noise, it is anti-silence, yet I feel at peace.

Whilst lying in Bute Park recently, I pondered the effect of city sounds. The hum of traffic and sirens and clock chimes were again background music, a distant layer of noise. Yet peace prevailed in the park. I imagined sounds as layers, as if a sense of quiet can only be pervaded by noise of closer proximity to our ears, a few layers in. When we are protected by large expanses of grass and trees, all iced by a pale blue frosting laced with wispy white clouds, the serenity is safe, the clatter and noise many layers away. People lounge languorously on blankets, chat in hushed voices, they read, they write, they kiss, they sleep. And perhaps, as a wise man recently pointed out to me, people in cities are able to feel calm because they hear city sounds. City sounds are a comfort, a reminder of both connection and anonymity, a reminder of the fact the mountains are not closing in on us.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Welsh Language Verbal Tennis

My sister and I spontaneously invented a game this week, which I've christened 'Welsh Language Verbal Tennis'. She and I were testing what's remaining of our school learned Welsh language by discussing vocabulary knowledge when suddenly we began to bat words back and forth, creating a vigorous Venus versus Serena style rally, but with balls of Cymraeg and rackets of tongues. 

It went a little bit like this:

Claire: Coch.
Me: Sglodion.
Claire: Oooo chips, nice one, what's sausages?
Me: Selsig.
Claire: Ok, selsig, that's mine now. Selsig.
Me: Cheat. Melyn.
Claire: Ty bach.
Me: Nice. Ysbyty.
Claire: Bendigedig.
Me: Llongyfarchiadau.
Claire: Clust
Me: Nofio
Claire: Mochyn
Me: Caws

You get the picture. Claire and I didn't go to Welsh medium school and haven't studied Welsh since so our command of the language leaves a lot to be desired. But our game got me thinking. It was fun and the rules simple, so seemingly ideal for a language learning exercise. A theme could be decided upon beforehand...whether travel or foods or compliments or weather...and the participants begin their exchange of linguistic shots. Yes, I'm aware that another language learning method is to have a conversation. In said language. And that's ultimately the most useful exchange of words to be able to participate in. But before that stage is reached, I think our tennis idea could help learners. It's less challenging than including grammar and sentence structure, so could be effective at building confidence as well as developing a vocabulary bank. It could be incentivised for added fun, with the person able to stay in the game the longest winning some form of chocolate. Or wine. I know that if I was learning a language, chocolate and wine would definitely help.