Friday, 27 July 2012

Centenary of an unsung hero

This might be the opening day of the London Olympics 2012, but this day is special in other ways, and I want to celebrate one of the world’s unsung heroes today.

My Dad – Walter Stanley Biggs -- was born on July 27, 1912, so today is his centenary.

His father, Henry, who died when his children were all still very young, was a coachman, according to his birth certificate. Dad’s mother, Ellen, had the maiden name Butler, and came from the Reading area.
Dad died in June 1978, aged only 65, so has been much missed for 34 years. He lived and worked in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, for many years.

He spent all his life working for and helping others. Tributes paid to him after he died referred to his ‘great friendship and help’, ‘kindness and loyalty’, his ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘honesty’.  He was also said to be ‘highly respected’, a ‘good friend and adviser’,  ‘trustworthy’, ‘sincere and warm’ and ‘full of life and devilment’. They said he ‘always seemed to be helping somebody’ and ‘our own lives are richer for having known him’.

My Dad was a motor engineer by trade – and very clever at it. If you can be gifted as a motor engineer, he truly was. It was almost as if he could tell you what was wrong with a car just by looking at it. And he always used that gift to help others. I can remember as a child my Dad going out in all weathers at all times of the day and night to help people whose cars had broken down.

He was only human, of course, he’d curse when the phone rang at 11pm and it was someone in trouble on the road. But he’d always go and get them moving.

He lost his own father when he was still a child. My knowledge of that history is sketchy, but I think Henry died when Dad was about ten years old.

World War Two saw Dad serving in the RAF as a flight sergeant. That’s where he learned his engineering trade. He earned the Burma Star, serving there on the aircraft used for troop movements. He ended the war there in very poor health. When he eventually returned home he had lost so much weight and looked so ill that his own mother didn’t recognise him. But he loved Burma and its people and always longed to return there. Sadly, that was never to be.

He married my mother in 1952. She had been widowed in the war and already had two daughters; and he was a great dad to us all.

He taught me to drive when I was four years old.  I sat on his knee and steered the old car down our road, and he built me my own little car, powered by pedals, from discarded bits of real grown up cars.

He showed me how to fix a fuse, chop wood, ride a bike, how to use a cricket bat and how to catch a ball.  He was great at gardening and we always had fresh fruit and veg. He’d also go fishing and shooting and bring stuff back for the table.

My Dad was vehemently opposed to the use of physical punishment. He would never smack his own kids and would speak out about those who did not ‘spare the rod’ with their children. He was well ahead of his time in this, of course. But we had great respect for him and fear of his disapproval was enough to keep us in line.

Put simply, he taught us all how to live. Not just by showing us all the practical stuff, but by his example of generosity, kindness and honesty with everyone.

He made sure we grew up fit for the world . He taught us how to give.
Most of all, he taught us how to love, just by being who he was. All we can do is try to live up to his example.

He will always be my hero.

Below: Dad and Mum in 1975

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Watercolour is back


Watercolour is back – and it has a range of striking new looks!

Traditional scenes with delicate quiet washes of colour across landscapes and seascapes are in evidence in the latest exhibition by the Watercolour Society of Wales.

But they are hung among many modern paintings that feature bright, vibrant and sometimes brilliant solid colours.

This show, at Oriel Mwldan in Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, until September 8, 2012, is a revelation.

The gallery is filled with life and colour and beauty – showing the medium in a new light, literally.

The range of subjects covers everything from portrait to details of flora, still life, to landscape and seascape and vibrant festival street scenes. And the treatments vary from literal images to the abstract.

There really is something for everyone. Yes that is a cliché, but this exhibition is anything but - it is wholly original.

Here is an idea of a few of the images that stayed with me beyond my first visit…
The traditional watercolour portrayal of Windswept Oaks in Pembrokeshire, by Sheila Edwards, delicate and beautifully finished with understated colours and washes. Hung nextdoor is After Sunset at Rhossili, by Philip Davies. Here is one of the most striking contrasts of the show. This work has strong deep oranges and blues and the look of oil paint with solid colour.

Audrey Meadowcroft brings us her Hellebores, shown in close detail, simply, realistically, without glare. While nearby we have the pounding waves of Richard Wills’s Sea Shore, which gives us the power of the tide in deep, solid hues, brilliantly executed in modern style.

Three studies of Little Haven, by Ruth Sargent, bring blocks of rich turquoise to her impressions of the tiny harbour village. She gives us her interpretation of the summer feeling of the place, leaving much to our own imagination. Quite stunning.

Wendy Yeo uses washes of pink and yellow to bring a startling original take on the landscape of Newport Bay at dusk.

Some of the paintings of people and characters are outstanding.  Cockle Women of N Gower 1960s, by Chris Last,  reminds clearly of Van Gogh’s potato pickers in style, yet the artist manages at the same time to give us a fresh view of a lifestyle.
Robert Macdonald brings the sound of Brecon Jazz alive with a streetscene full of people dancing and enjoying music.

Andrea Kelland’s work is beautifully executed, very moving in its apparent simplicity.  Her ‘Golden Pool Edge’ is illustrated here, and her Witches Cauldron seascape, also in the exhibition, brings a sense of ‘less is more’ to the show. Her work seems to be understated, yet there is depth of colour and movement.

Oriel Mwldan is open Monday-Sunday from 10am to 8pm. Entry is free.

*The Watercolour Society of Wales was established in 1959 when six like-minded artists met to form a society to promote watercolour painting in Wales, a tradition which goes back to the late 18th century. To date the society has around 40 members coming from all walks of life, many being professional artists, but all are talented painters living and working in Wales. The Society strives to keep pace with the development of newer water-soluble media so that traditional watercolour stands alongside acrylic and mixed media in its exhibitions.


Saturday, 21 July 2012

Great start to new community purchase

There has been a great start to a project by locals in a west Wales market town to buy the redundant police station and adjacent court-house in the town.

The aim is to use the buildings for community benefit.

Local people in the Cardigan area have already pledged nearly £10,000 towards the community purchase – just days after the project was announced.

The old police station
 The share appeal to raise money to buy the buildings was launched last week by 4CG, which raised hundreds of thousands of pounds two years ago to buy the redundant Pwllhai site in the town (see earlier blog – Growing Community Projects, July 13, 2012).

“This is an amazing initial public response to this idea,” said 4CG chairman Shan Williams.

“Within a few days we had applications for £6,000 worth of shares and the figure is now rapidly rising towards £10,000.

By becoming shareholders, the community will have a say in how the buildings are developed and will be fully involved in building a high street location and helping to transform their town centre. 

“This will ensure that the site is developed for the benefit of the community rather than private property developers.”

Ideas for the police station include using it as a bunk-house/hostel for walkers and other visitors; and creating offices to rent. The courthouse would be for community use.

Plans also include development of the police station yard, which backs onto Pwllhai.
“We would want to develop the whole site and landscape the whole area and bring it back to life,” said Mrs Williams.

The old court-house

Shares are being sold at £200 each, as they were for the original Pwllhai purchase. The money raised will be ring-fenced specifically for the old police station project.

4CG plans to put in an offer for the buildings very soon.

The old police station and the courthouse next door in Priory Street have both been empty for more than a year.

*Application forms for shares are available at the Eco Shop in Pwllhai or from the website:

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Freedom to write

Thinking today about the freedom that most of us in the UK have to write (and to read); and about the many people all over the world who don’t enjoy that freedom.

For example, the Syrian author Samar Yazbek was prevented from appearing at the Ways with Words literary festival in Devon last week.

According a story in the Bookseller she was held at the Gare du Nord in Paris, despite assurances from the British Embassy that she would be able to make the journey.

Samar Yazbek is a refugee, whose book A Woman In The Crossfire (Haus Publishing) is a diary of the first 100 days of the violent struggle in Syria. She finally managed to make her way to Britain over the weekend. But her publisher Barbara Schwepcke said the process was “a bureaucratic nightmare”.

“We had been planning the visit for a while, and had worked hard with groups like PEN who are experts with helping writers travel. They had assurances from the Home Office and the embassy in Paris that she would be able to come here with her current status and visa. However, when she got up to Gare du Nord, they said ‘no’.”

Schwepcke added that although she understood security concerns were prevalent, there had to be space for artists to travel freely. She said: “Perhaps with the Olympics there is extra concern, but someone like Ms Yazbek has a very important story to tell. She has seen things in Syria first-hand and escaped to talk about them, and support the brave people who are still there on the streets fighting for their human rights.”

Heather Norman Somerlind, acting director at English PEN, said: “We have run a campaign to improve the rights of visiting artists. Things have got a lot better but there are still cases which surprise us. We will always need to do more to ensure that writers with legitimate reasons to travel can do so.”

This episode brings to mind a conversation held at the Dinefwr Literature Festival at the start of July with writer Gilian Slovo, who is president of English PEN. The discussion, with Dr Tom Cheesman, of Swansea University, was based around the possibility of starting such a group in Wales.

Dr Cheesman, with Eric Ngalle Charles and Sylvie Hoffmann, established the non-profit Hafan Books in 2003, to publish literary texts by refugees in Wales, alongside work by other writers.  He is also involved with the  Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group.

English PEN is the founding centre of PEN International, the worldwide fellowship of writers promoting free expression and the literature across frontiers.  There are 140 PEN centres in more than 100 countries, providing an active and supportive community for writers and readers around the world.
Through campaigns and programmes, English PEN promotes the freedom to write and the freedom to read.  Internationally, the organisation campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers, editors and publishers.  In the UK there are campaigns to reform laws that curb free expression, and for greater access to literature. 

More links:

Monday, 16 July 2012

Baby boomers reach pension age

The first figures released from the 2011 census show there has been a huge increase in the population of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, no surprises there then.

There are now 53 million people in England; 3.1 million in Wales; and 1.8 million in Northern Ireland.

The percentage of the population aged 65 and over was the highest seen in any census -- at 16.4%,  or one in six people. The BBC news guy just said that’s because ‘people are living longer’. Yes we are, but there are many more of us living very much longer.
Here in Wales there is a higher proportion of 65-year-olds than in nearly all the regions of England.

Those of us in the over-50 age group (OK, over 55, or even fast heading for 60 and above, I will be honest!) …  we already know we are post-war baby-boomers and we know that we are still alive – yes we really are, we are still very much alive and we intend to be so for some considerable time.

What Government and media  – national, regional and local – seem to have missed about all this is is that this huge population bulge will reach pensionable age in the next few years. Actually, very soon.

Yes, I know they have tried to make some savings (cuts, they are cuts, not ‘savings’) by moving the state pension age up, but why am I not surprised that there has been no planning for the huge increase in demand for social care that the ‘baby-boomers’ will bring as they grow older into their 70s, 80s and 90s?

The census tells us there are now 33 times as many people over 90 as there were a century ago. I am not a statistician, but we know that if we jump forward ten years, that figure will be increased by even more, as the boomers continue to live.
And we will continue to live, believe me we will if we can. And some of us, probably many of us, will continue to vote. If we don’t have the carers that we need to help us get to polling stations, we will be voting online, or by post.

All those responsible for providing home care services – yes that is called ‘community care’ – please take note.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Woody Guthrie Centenary

Today is the centenary of blues folk singer Woody Guthrie, known as the ‘dustbowl troubadour’ and a clear influence on many later musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs.

Musicians from a variety of backgrounds continue to draw inspiration from Woody Guthrie, re-interpreting and re-invigorating his songs for new audiences. His influence is still felt throughout the world, through people such as Billy Bragg, Wilco, Ani DiFranco, The Klezmatics, Hans-Eckhardt Wenzel, to Native American musicians such as Keith Secola and Blackfire to Chinese Punk rockers PK14 and Danish musician Esben.

Woody Guthrie's songs still speak to us about thoughts, ideas, and feelings that are as relevant and meaningful today as when he lived them in the 1930s and 1940s.

He says it best himself in his book, Pastures of Plenty:

‘There's a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have travelled and makes you travel it again. Sometimes when I hear music I think back over my days - and a feeling that is fifty-fifty joy and pain swells like clouds taking all kinds of shapes in my mind.

‘Music is in all the sounds of nature and there never was a sound that was not music - the splash of an alligator, the rain dripping on dry leaves, the whistle of a train, a long and lonesome train whistling down, a truck horn blowing at a street corner speaker - kids squawling along the streets - the silent wail of wind and sky caressing the breasts of the desert.

‘Life is this sound, and since creation has been a song. And there is no real trick of creating words to set to music, once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song.’

Long may his influence remain with us all.